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Volume 9, Number 4—April 2003
Another Dimension

Cicero and Burkholderia cepacia: What’s in a Name?

John E. Moore*Comments to Author  and Frederick Williams†
Author affiliations: *Belfast City Hospital, Belfast, Northern Ireland; †The Queen’s University of Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland

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Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passes of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. Judges 12:6

In Old Testament times, mispronunciation bore a price. The Israelites (circa 1143 B.C.) used pronunciation to differentiate their own from the Ephraimites, and the consequences of mispronunciation were severe. Today, mispronunciation, though not a matter of life and death, presents problems when it interferes with communication. In scientific nomenclature, Greek or Latin bionomials of infectious disease microorganisms are often mispronounced, sometimes causing confusion among healthcare professionals (e.g., infectious disease physicians, epidemiologists, and even microbiologists). Unlike horticulturalists, who have masterfully developed a large repertoire of common names for botanical species thereby avoiding the need for and potential mispronunciation of classical Greek and Latin, infectious disease specialists still rely on Greek and Latin bionomials.

How important is a standard pronunciation of bionomials? Language is about communication. Provided the parties in a discussion can understand each other, variations in pronunciation of individual words can be tolerated or disregarded. Everyday modern English is filled with examples of variant pronunciations that cause no communication problems (e.g., either, tomato, laboratory, fertile). These variant pronunciations have many causes. Regional practice is probably the single most important variant, but educational and social backgrounds also play a part, as do personal preferences and even etymologic theories. It would be futile and (some believe) undesirable to impose uniformity by prescribing approved pronunciations when communication is not compromised. Moreover, in all languages, pronunciation changes constantly.

Burkholderia cepacia, an important gram-negative bacterial pathogen in patients with cystic fibrosis, may cause premature death in these patients. Since its first description in 1950 by Walter Burkholder (1), the pathogen has undergone several taxonomic reclassifications (2) in accordance with the Bacteriologic Code (1990 revision). However, uncertainty still surrounds the clinical relevance of its evolving taxonomy, particularly in regards to the nine described genomovars of the B. cepacia complex (BCC). The species name cepa'cia comes from L. fem. N. caepa or cepa (onion). Most confusion surrounding this species name was initially due to its transfer from the genus Pseudomonas to the newly described genus Burkholderia by Yabuuchi et al. in 1992 (3). The practice of renaming individual BBC genomovars with species names when phenotypic differentiation becomes available has heightened the confusion, as in the renaming of B. cepacia genomovar II to B. multivorans, where problems arise both with physicians (in infection control) and with patients (psychological acceptance of the disease).

Even though in B. cepacia, taxonomic issues rather than pronunciation are at the root of confusion, the pathogen neatly encapsulates several aspects of the linguistic conundrum involving “correct” pronunciation of Latin binomials. The correct pronunciation of both the genus Burkholderia and the species cepacia is still debated. The debate is mainly about the correct pronunciation of cepacia, but the genus name, Burkholderia, also deserves some consideration. The genus name is formed from the surname Burkholder, on which a Latin suffix –ia has been grafted. How should this synthetic word be pronounced? With the original pronunciation of the name retained as far as possible (long o and stress on second syllable) or with a more Latinized effect (short o and stress on third syllable, possibly lengthening its vowel)? Or is this in fact a nonexistent problem because the word is normally encountered in print so variations in pronunciation present no confusion?

The scientific and infectious disease communities would benefit from the adoption of a standard pronunciation of Latin binomials that would obviate confusion and ambiguities. The Linnaean binomial system uses Latin morphology and grammar in forming its names, and they are equally respected in China and Peru. Why not adopt a standard pronunciation? An immediate practical objection is that there is hardly a “standard Latin pronunciation.” Throughout history, Latin pronunciation has developed in accordance to the vernacular language of its users. Even as long ago as the 16th century, when Latin was of necessity the common language of such multinational organizations as the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, speakers of Latin from different nations could not understand each other. This linguistic situation was satirized in 1528 by Erasmus, who proposed to standardize a reconstructed version of classical Latin pronunciation, i.e., the practice (as far as it could be deduced) of 1,500 years earlier. His efforts had only limited success. Two and a half centuries later, Samuel Johnson, in his Life of Milton, condemned those who, like Milton, sought to replace the “English” pronunciation with the “Italian.” A remnant of Johnson’s “English” system still persists in the Latin-derived jargon used by British lawyers. Toward the end of the 19th century, schoolmasters and classics scholars began adopting a restored pronunciation (reconstructed from heterogeneous evidence) that aimed to reproduce Latin pronunciation in the time of Cicero or Virgil (i.e., the first centuries B.C. and A.D.). This reform was supported in 1923 by a committee appointed by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but the “new way” was not universally accepted.

Analogous situations are found in other European countries. In Italy, the church pronunciation still carries much prestige. In France, the reform movement encountered bitter opposition. However, the views of responsible classics scholars today seem to converge in both theoretical and practical terms. The most promising system is described by W. Sidney Allen (4) in which he uses symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. According to this system, both cs in cepacia would be pronounced hard (like English k); the first vowel, e, would be long (approximately as in Received Pronunciation of gate); the second, a, would also be long (approximately as in RP father); i (as in dip) and a would be short; and the stress would fall on the second syllable. There is some degree of artificiality in this system, since cepacia is not a classical word but a later scientific coinage, formed from the classical Latin caepa. Indeed, this scholarly pronunciation does not correspond with any current pronunciations in the scientific and infectious disease communities. Any attempt to introduce it as a standard might paradoxically cause further confusion.

The standard pronunciation of Latin that scholars have reconstructed implies the primacy (for literary purposes) of the so-called Golden Age of Caesar, Cicero, and the Augustan poets and historians. Infectious disease specialists in the 21st century should not adopt this pronunciation, unless it is a genuinely useful and acceptable solution to a real problem. Our times, unlike the era of the Israelites, do not deem mispronunciation a capital offence. Classicists should be willing to help if they are asked but have no proprietary rights over the functional idiolect of modern scientific Latin whose users can use whatever pronunciation they find conducive to communication.

Dr. Moore, a member of the International Burkholderia cepacia Working Group, is principal clinical scientist in medical microbiology at the Northern Ireland Public Health Laboratory, Belfast City Hospital. His research interests include the development of molecular tools that characterize microbial pathogens in infectious diseases to aid in patient management, particularly the use of ribosomal RNA detection and sequencing techniques to detect etiologic agents of culture-negative infections.

Dr. Williams is professor of Greek at the Queen’s University of Belfast. Much of his work has focused on Hellenistic poetry (especially that of Callimachus); he has also written on Babrius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ovid, Juvenal, and Colluthus and has investigated linguistic usage, theophany, the relationship of the Cynics to early Christianity, polar bears in antiquity, and E.M. Forster’s use of the Daphne story. He is now editing Cercidas of Megalopolis.



  1. Burkholder  WH. Sour skin: a bacterial rot of onion bulbs. Phytopathology. 1950;40:1157.
  2. Coenye  T, Vandamme  P, Govan  JR. LiPuma JJ. Taxonomy and identification of the Burkholderia cepacia complex. J Clin Microbiol. 2001;39:342736. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Yabuuchi  E, Kosako  Y, Oyaizu  H. Proposal of Burkholderia den. nov. and transfer of seven species of the genus Pseudomonas homology group II to the new genus with type species Burkholderia cepacia (Palleroni & Holmes 1981) comb. nov. Microbiol Immunol. 1992;36:125175.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Allen  WS. Vox Latina: a guide to the pronunciation of classical Latin. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1965.


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DOI: 10.3201/eid0904.ad0904

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Please use the form below to submit correspondence to the authors or contact them at the following address:

Dr. John E. Moore, Northern Ireland Public Health Laboratory, Department of Bacteriology, Belfast City Hospital, Belfast, BT9 7AD, Northern Ireland; fax: +44 (28) 2589 2887

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Page created: December 08, 2010
Page updated: December 08, 2010
Page reviewed: December 08, 2010
The conclusions, findings, and opinions expressed by authors contributing to this journal do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors' affiliated institutions. Use of trade names is for identification only and does not imply endorsement by any of the groups named above.