How to pronounce the genus name Formica



Here's a question from a professional myrmecologist, that I'm sure has entered the minds of many in the English speaking world who are interested in ants. As the askAnt Team's "resident Latin scholar", here are the question and my response.

"I'm sure you've answered this before. Is the correct pronunciation
for Formica with the accent on the 'o' or on the 'i'? I think it
should be on the penultimate syllable, the 'i', but then it sounds
like the plastic Formica. What is the general opinion on this?"
Dr. Les Greenberg
Department of Entomology
University of California-Riverside

Thanks for the question, Les. It's true I get asked about this and similar matters fairly frequently, and here are my thoughts on your specific query.

-- If we were speaking Latin, we would say /forMEEka/ (accented like Spanish hormiga).
-- By Borror and Delong's, George and Jeanette Wheeler's, and many other biologists' published guidelines for standardized English pronunciation of Latin, the old Latin long 'i' should be pronounced as in English bite and mice, and it should be accented. Thus, they would say /forMYka/.
-- This genus got its name and was pronounced in English as /forMYka/ for probably about a century before the plastic Formica, was invented, but of course, the inventors of the plastic wouldn't have known that. See the Wikipedia article on how it got its name and more, if you like: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formica_(plastic)
-- FORmihka, accent on the 'o', is not really a Latin word, but if it were, it would be the feminine form of an adjective, formicus, meaning taking shape, shaping, forming, formative, or formic, depending on context, and agreeing with a feminine noun. Stretching this out to the realm of absurdity, but helping to make my point - Theoretically, one could have said in Latin Formica formica, i.e., /forMEEka FORmihka/, which would mean, somewhat nonsensically, "a formative ant" (a pupa?).

I personally have gone to a more Latinate, international pronunciation and prefer the first pronunciation, but sometimes slip into the old habit of the second pronunciation. I never say it with the accent on the 'o', and don't like the cognitive dissonance of it that results from my knowing too much Latin, but others whom I respect do say it that way.

So take your pick, and if you're speaking English, you'll be right no matter what.

James C. Trager of the Ask Ant TeamBiologist - Naturalist

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