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The word lactuca refers to lettuce, and Lactuca sativa is the scientific name. Some of the plants in this genus seem to contain some kind of milky liquid which must be the reason for deriving the word from milk. (I do not know what kind of lettuce the Romans had. Intensively cultivated plants have evolved quite a bit over the last two millennia, so it is hard to guess how milky their lettuce was.)

How exactly is lactuca derived from lac? I am not familiar with this suffix -uca. Is this a regular derivative? Are there other examples? What does the suffix mean — does the plant look taste like milk, contain milk, look like milk, does it help milk a cow, or something else? The last question is intended from a linguistic point of view, not a biological one.

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    If you read German and can access Leumann, Lateinische Grammatik: Laut- und Formenlehre, there may be some information about this suffix there. – TKR Oct 2 '16 at 16:26
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    @TKR Indeed, they do discuss it in in section 304 (pp. 339-340). More examples: caducus, manducus, fiducia; sambucus, albucus; aeruca, verruca; fistuca; curruca, eruca, festuca, ulucus. As for lactuca, LHS say it's "latinisiert aus gr. γλαϰτοũχοσ" [sic - Alex B.], which I assume should be γᾰλαϰτοῦχοσ "having milk" - at least, this is the form given in my copy of Montanari (The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek). – Alex B. Oct 2 '16 at 17:25
  • Greek isn't my forte, I can't comment on that though. – Alex B. Oct 2 '16 at 17:30
  • @AlexB., my university library does have a copy of the book but unfortunately I do not read German. Could you turn that comment into an answer? Those examples and any additional discussion would be great. (My Greek is not strong enough to guess whether the alpha could be lost in derivatives.) – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 2 '16 at 18:38
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    @AlexB. LSJ also list γαλακτοῦχος and not γλακτοῦχος. But the latter could be an unattested variant, as there are other compounds in γλακτο-, e.g. γλακτοφάγος 'subsisting on milk'. Not sure why the Greek derivation is needed though, given all those native Latin words in -ucus. – TKR Oct 2 '16 at 22:48
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The suffix -ucus was added to the stem of lactare, just like it happened in caducus from cadere and in manducus from mandere. Fiducia too should come from an unattested *fiducus (thanks @TKR).

According to Ernout (Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue latine) the original word was a feminine adjective, with herba implied. It meant milky grass, and it came from the milky liquid inside. He seems to imply that the suffix should be more or less equivalent to a present participle (lactens, cadens), which makes sense at least looking at their meaning.

Szmerenyi (Greek γἀλα and the Indo-European term for „milk“) says:

Lactuca can hardly be explained as bearing the same relation to lacto as caducus to cado, since lact-are is different from cad-ere; if Ernout is right in regarding late lactare as based on earlier lactans, then at the time of Lucilius or before, when only lactans existed, it was quite impossible to produce a new lactuca on the pattern of cad-ens: cad-ucus. Since, on the other hand, γαλακτουχος is attested in Greek, it is reasonable to infer that lactuca is a Latinization of γαλακτουχη, just as *tartaruca (italian tartaruga) is from Greek tartarouxos.

Leumann (Lateinische Grammatik, vol. 1, par. 304) simply reports the suffix as a "deverbative adjective", because "no big functional group [funktionell bestimmten gruppen] can be found for adjectives and nouns coming from -co- and -quo-". He follows Szemerenyi, KZ 75, 178 (Greek γἀλα and the Indo-European term for „milk“) in saying that lactuca is a substantive coming from Greek γαλακτουχος, which Leumann translates as "containing milk".

Walde (Lateinisches etymologisches Woerterbuch) only says: "from milk, because of the milky juice".

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    Another example is fīdūcia, nominalized from an implied but unattested fīdūcus. (Btw the suffix is not added to the first person singular, but to the stem.) – TKR Oct 2 '16 at 16:25

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