Can You Name a Diocese After an Eel?

Naming New Places in an Ancient Language

John Byron Kuhner
Nov 5 · 5 min read
“Adam Names the Animals” by John Miles.

If you were to look on the Wikipedia page for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Parramatta (in Australia), you might notice two Latin words on the right-side information bar: Dioecesis Parramattensis, the official name of the diocese in Latin. “-Ensis” is a suffix in Latin meaning “belonging to a place,” hence the name means, simply enough, “the diocese belonging to Parramatta.” But where did this name come from? Surely the Romans — the ancient ones, at least — didn’t have words for places in Australia, which was unknown to Europe until 1606.

Well, the answer is that the diocesan name was decided in the Vatican, in the place where Latin decisions of this sort have been made for generations: the Latin Department of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, just down the hall from the Pope’s personal apartment. Parramatta came to the attention of the Latin Department in 1986, when the decision was made to create a new diocese in Parramatta, only twelve miles from Sydney, to accommodate the suburban growth around Australia’s largest city.

“We didn’t know anything about Parramatta when it crossed our desk,” Fr. Reginald Foster (“Reginaldus”), who worked for decades in the Latin Department, told me one afternoon while we were discussing his career at the Vatican. “But we had to come up with a Latin name for the diocese. Well, I found out that the name ‘Parramatta’ comes from an Aboriginal language and means ‘the place of the eels.’” To this day, the city’s Rugby team is known as the Parramatta Eels. “So I came up with ‘Anguillaria,’ which is Latin for ‘eel-land.’” Australia itself has a similarly formed Latin name ending in -ria or its alternative -lia (Australia means “south-land” in Latin). The adjective, used in the diocesan name, would have been Anguillariensis. “Well, everyone was excited about it,” booms Reginaldus, getting excited about it himself. “The bishop. The nuncio. Everyone. The eels!”

Everyone, that is, except Monsignor Giovanni Coppa, who had by then served nearly three decades in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and would later be made a cardinal by Benedict XVI. Coppa, a formidable Latinist himself who passed away in 2016, had the unofficial task of being Reginaldus’s Latin minder, curbing his younger colleague’s linguistic excesses. “So Coppa comes in,” Reginaldus continues, “and says, ‘Foster, you can’t name a diocese after an eel!’ He vetoed the whole thing. So what is it today? ‘Parramattensis.’ Terrible. He just took the English name of the diocese and stuck a Latin ending on it.”

In fact, Coppa probably made the right choice, as — whether he knew it or not — a Latin place-adjective for Parramatta actually already existed. The Vatican is a major source of modern Latin place names. The other main source is science, particularly the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and more specifically (pun intended) in this instance, the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants, which require Latin binomial names and Latin descriptions for all known species. The Australian physician Edwin Cuthbert Hall (1874–1953), himself a resident of Parramatta, had published the first scientific description of the Rough-Budded Calgaroo (no I am not making that up), a species of Eucalyptus tree found in the Parramatta area, giving it the Latin name Eucalyptus parramattensis. This is the first instance I can find of the use of the adjective Parramattensis (you’ll note that in all scientific names, the specific name is not capitalized, even if it represents a proper name). It was used again by botanist Mary Tindale in 1962 when she described the species Acacia parramattensis, the Parramatta Wattle (another incredible Australian name). Once a Latin name for a place exists, it’s of course good practice to stick with it, and so if there was already a Eucalyptus parramattensis and an Acacia parramattensis, it makes sense that there should be a Dioecesis Parramattensis.

The disagreement between Reginaldus and Coppa reflects the two sides of a long-standing debate about how to create place names, and their adjectives, in Latin. Coppa represents the school of the Borrowers: simply borrow the name into Latin and stick Latin endings on it to make it intelligible as Latin. The Diocese of Sydney’s name was formulated in 1842 as Dioecesis Sydneyensis, by a Borrower. The advantage of Borrowing is that the meanings of the words are perfectly clear: you know that the Dioecesis Sydneyensis has got to be the Diocese of Sydney. Reginaldus represents the Adapters: they want to adapt foreign words and fully Latinize them. His school is not new. When the diocese of Wagga Wagga in Australia was organized (1917), it was named Dioecesis Corvopolitanus. That name means something to a Latinist: it means “the diocese of Crow City.” But you’d need to know that the original meaning of Wagga Wagga is “lots of crows” in order to know what in the world “Crow City” refers to. This kind of adaptation — translating a name into another language — is known to linguists as a calque.

Coppa did yield to Reginaldus plenty of times: in fact, during that same reorganization of the Archdiocese of Sydney, the Latin office had to come up with a Latin name for the Diocese of Broken Bay. “Brokenbayensis” apparently was a little too much English for Coppa to deal with, so he consented to Reginaldus’s more Adaptive version: Dioecesis Sinus Tortuosi, the Diocese of the Curving Bay.

Not all places in the world have Latin names: if a place hasn’t featured in a scientific description or some ecclessiastical correspondence, it may not have an established Latin name. But more places have names than you might think. Monsignor Carlo Egger, another stalwart of the Vatican’s Latin Department, published a book of such names, entitled the Lexicon Nominum Locorum, still available at the Vatican’s bookshop. And today the Morgan-Owens Lexicon, curated by Patrick Owens and hosted online by the Paideia Institute, contains modern place names, such as Sydneium for Sydney, Novum Eboracum for New York, and many more. It’s all part of a continual Latin tradition of religion, science, and scholarship stretching all the way back to the Romans, and carried on in large part by the Vatican.

[An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Inside the Vatican Magazine.]


John Byron Kuhner is former president of the North American Institute for Living Latin Studies (SALVI) and editor of In Medias Res.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

John Byron Kuhner

Written by

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

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