Help needed... Personally, why do you like to name things?

So, I'm giving a 3 hour presentation to a group of master naturalists about taxonomy and citizen science, and there's one question that I'd love to get some input from my fellow iNatters: why do you like to name things? Why is it important to you, personally, to give an organism a name? Is it something you enjoy? Why does it matter to you?

There are quite a few reasons that I like to learn something's name. For me, that's the first step in appreciating it. It's the first step in how I can learn more about it too. I use the name to communicate about it to others as well.

I'm wrong with its name a bunch, but still by giving it a name, somehow it becomes more meaningful to me.

Would LOVE to hear why you like to give an organism a name. :)

Posted on 26 February, 2017 16:38 by sambiology sambiology


For me, every creature I encounter is an individual with its own personality. They are all special and deserve to be treated as such. Names are personal and important and every organism deserves that respect. Second, I want to learn and pass on knowledge.

Posted by tfandre almost 7 years ago

You've asked one of the great questions of natural history study. From a pragmatic standpoint, putting a name on something gives it a "handle". From a basic human instinct, it helps us separate "this" thing from "that" thing in the world around us. As understanding of the complexity of our surroundings grows, names become more and more important relative to the import of the set of objects in our lives (e.g., the number of words in Eskimo dialects for "snow"). That's certainly true in the world of science as we dive deeper into biodiversity and conservation issues, etc.

Yet, the question remains, do we need a name to appreciate an organism? Some would argue "no". I don't need to know the name of a complex flower to appreciate its beauty. I don't need to know the name of a swallow to appreciate its gracefulness. Yet I would argue there is still something fundamental in human nature which is triggered by our observation of some object (a flower, a swallow) which is related to our desired to understand a "thing" in more depth...therein lies our need for that handle called its "name".

Posted by gcwarbler almost 7 years ago

Once we put a name to something (eg. species, person, etc) we develop a connection with it or them that gives us a sense of empathy and a desire to learn more. When people remain ignorant or don't want to know something or someone, it remains unimportant and can be ignored, demonized, or sadly destroyed without a second thought.

Posted by eric_keith almost 7 years ago

hmm... to me the names are convenient ways of keeping track of different things. Of course as human constructs the names are spewhat subjective and don't always reflect reality. But names offer a way of sorting and understanding things.

i am very interested in maps and special characteristics - why and how things get where they are, especially plants. without names it isn't possible to do that, because it isn't really feasible to describe patterns without them. With names, and points on a map, suddenly this whole world opens up.

while there's often the complaint that names act as an end-all, and people stop looking deeper, that isn't my observation. To our knowledge humans are the only ones who name the species on earth. It's an act of understanding, of respect, of appreciation that something is important. It's in the bible creation story and probably many others as well - God (or gods or some other similar entity) create, humans name. it's arguable one of our strongest tools.

I'm trying to name things here that are being destroyed, in many cases the name and the point on the map will be all that is left :( But maybe that will help people care.

Posted by charlie almost 7 years ago

This is a philosophical question of considerable significance, and one about which people have written many volumes.

I think that as humans, our very advanced use of language is our greatest asset. Putting a name on something, learning a few nouns, e.g. "mama", is the very first thing we do when acquire language as babies, and also it is usually the first thing we do when we are learning a foreign language.

Once something has a name, we can create a conceptual structure around it, link it to other known objects, and gradually link it more and more deeply into our ever-more-complete knowledge of the world.

Yes, I very much love to learn the names for organisms and for rocks, and for cloud types and so on. I love to learn, and without any names for things, I can't still enjoy stuff in a general way, but I can't learn very well at all.

Of course I myself prefer scientific names, because they are more precise, and because they tell you more about the interrelationships of the objects named. Plus those scientific names are valid all around the world in every language. Knowing the scientific name for something enables you to easily unlock, especially via the internet, a whole vast assembly of information about that object and its relatives.

But I also have learned to appreciate the value of knowing local common names as well, because that enables you to exchange information with people who don''t know the scientific names.

Is that what you wanted to know, Sam?

Posted by susanhewitt almost 7 years ago

I guess there's not a whole lot more that I can add. I like the analogy of a handle @gcwarbler for those researching. I'd also describe as a bin to put information into. However, for those who know nothing about an organism, it can act more like a key. There's only so much you can know about a room until you have a key to unlock the door and see what's inside.

Posted by nathantaylor almost 7 years ago

This is supremely helpful! Thanks everyone for the great discussion. I'm going to spend a good portion of time to "why" we give names to things in my presentation. I'm also going to hit on why we enjoy doing this as naturalists.

Great stuff -- thanks! :)

Posted by sambiology almost 7 years ago

Big question Sam. The biggest draw for me is just a better understanding of this planet hurtling through space around a star in a huge system of other stars, etc.. In getting to know the species associated with a small microhabitat (let's say an acidic seep bog in east Texas), it provokes wonderment when extrapolated across a larger spatial scale imagining all the variation and causation of the world's ecosystems. Yet, without first providing an assessment of species present, unraveling the complexity and beauty of the world's natural history would be impossible. On a personal level, as my ability to name organisms grows, it increases my awareness of cryptic species that I would simply not have even noticed upon the beginning of my taxonomic foray (albeit a mere fraction of the world's flora and fauna). Become familiar with these often complex groups (e.g. Carex), makes me appreciate organisms' "will to live" resulting in divergence to utilize a wide array of biotic and abiotic conditions.

Posted by anewman almost 7 years ago

It is inherently human to name things. Language is wired into our DNA. Eskimos have over 50 different words for snow (skiers have a few, too ... powder, boilerplate, corduroy, chunder, soft serve, slop, dust on crust, breakable crust, wind pack, etc.). Naming an organism answers the question; "What is it?" and that leads to more questions and answers. "What does it eat?" "What eats it?" "Can I eat it?" "Can it hurt me?" "Where does it live?" "Why is it found here and not there?" We have any number and variety of common names for organisms. Conveniently we have established the Linnaean System of taxonomy and binomial nomenclature for naming organisms, a language we as casual and professional naturalists understand and that which transcends borders and cultures. That's why it matters to me.

Posted by brownsbay almost 7 years ago

I don't like to name things, really, but I appreciate the need to name and be able to refer to. I also think the drive to 'name' has different underpinnings and can be personal (everyone's 'need' to name is not necessarily the same) a few thoughts:
Personally, I find the naming of things, and the desire to name and classify everything is aligned (in part! not to diminish the value and importance) with the human drive to assert mastery and control (ownership?) over. i.e. If I give it a name, it's mine.
I also think it ties to the origin of and purpose of language. i.e. If it has a name, I can know it, tell someone else about it, distinguish it from other things.
Naming tends to engender care and attachment. i.e. If I give it a name, I know its name; if I know its name, there is an intimacy to knowing something otherwise nameless and simply 'other'. Is a Koala Bear as attractive if it were called Klaw Bear? It's hard to know. But hummingbird engenders appreciation and wonder more than, say, long-tongued hover bird.
I wonder if the inclination to name and classify is gendered as per the way we classify and name things (and languages, words used) are primarily male-created systems. I'm not sure this point matters very much, actually, it just occurs to me that the classification (and language) systems we use tend to have been created by men. In other words, is naming the act of the 'empowered'?

Someone once said to me that I could have a star named after me for Christmas if I want, and, though a sweet idea in theory, it seemed an arrogant idea underneath.

Naming something, anything, relates directly to who has the right to name, and who is given (or acquires access to) the right to name. Who decides that naming a star can be a gift?

You are asking a lot in this question that you may not have intended to. That humans have complex languages, that we remember and tell stories and share information, that we name and want to name things: you are basically asking what separates us from the rest of nature. Do we name things by instinct, need, learning or desire - or is it a combination of these things?

Do I like naming things? No. Am I glad to look around and see the world and attach names to what I see because I haven learned them - i.e. If it has a name, it has familiarity - and there is a safety and comfort in knowing what things are called.

Because we know the names of things and we have the ability to name (and understand it?), is the natural world less frightening? Is nature less daunting if we understand it? I would say so.

Are there different drives and personal satisfactions and rewards for naming something? Is it something that comes with stature and appeals to the ego? Or is naming something more a celebration of discovery, and wanting to find and discover something for the first time?

To name or not to name. To be or not to be. If a tree falls in the forest ...
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

I think the answer to your question will depend entirely on who you ask. Thanks for getting me thinking. - wb

Posted by wanda_baxter almost 7 years ago

As most of the other people have said, it helps you to get a "handle" on the organism, its life, loves and deaths. The latin binomials are particularly important for me ! As you know, I am from England and common names are not common across the pond. Your/our robin is nothing like my robin for instance. The latin names ensure that everybody knows exactly what everybody is talking about. Erithacus rubecula is definitely not the same bird as Turdus migratorius. The same with nutria(US) and coypu(UK), Myocastor coypus. It was 3 sessions of Master Naturalist training before I realised that they were the same thing!

Posted by andyk almost 7 years ago

I may be too simplistic, but it is a heck of a lot easier to refer to an organism by a common or scientific name rather than have to describe it clearly enough for another to understand or visualize. I think about prehistory when early humans began to develop signs and sounds to identify things. It is an inherent human trait.

By the way, @sambiology, in reference to your upcoming taxonomy class, I LOVE it when the instructor throws in an explanation of how a plant perhaps received its common name and the "meaning" or "reasoning" of the scientific name. Aids in memory retention for me (... sometimes...) even though many plants have the same specific name such as drummondii, reverchonii, lindheimeri, etc., but that, in itself might be of interest to some students.

Posted by connlindajo almost 7 years ago

Everyone has given such great answers! The only thing that I can add is that often the common name or scientific name gives me an idea of a characteristic of the plant. For instance, Spiderwort reminds me that when the stalk of the plant is broken, the sap forms filaments similar to a spider's web. Gleditsia triacanthos reminds me that the thorns have 3 parts, hence the "tri." Black willow, the common name, reminds me that the binomial is Salix nigra or Juglans nigra reminds me that the fruit comes from the black walnut tree. The common names, Mexican hat and Firewheel, remind me of what the flower looks like for Ratibida columnifera and Gaillardia pulchella. Macro in Quercus macrocarpa helps me remember how BIG the Bur oak tree is and that the acorn is the largest of all native oak trees. There are many more, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Posted by suz almost 7 years ago

@suz You hit the nail on the head.... Great response to Sam's question!

Posted by connlindajo almost 7 years ago

latin lessons at school have helped me a lot!!

Posted by andyk almost 7 years ago

Silly though this sounds, I do feel that once I know the scientific name of an organism, it becomes like a friend to me. I am happy when I see it again, and I can pick it out easily from a crowd.

Posted by susanhewitt almost 7 years ago

This is closely related to one of my favorite FAQs to answer, which is "why do you [birding] people CARE whether it's a left-purple-toed warbler or a slightly-purple-spotted-nosed warbler?" My answer is that if you know which it is, you suddenly know more about not just the specific organism, but its whole context. My recent TXMN training taught/reminded me how extremely contextual everything is. If this plant is an X, it means it's mostly dry where it's growing; if it's a Y (which looks similar), you know it must be wetter sometimes, and so on. That depends on being able to identify and name the plant.

And once you have enough of those pieces of information in your head, it becomes the dreaded "gestalt" that really experienced naturalists have, where they can look across a landscape and tell you a lot about it. I call that "dreaded" because as a LESS-experienced naturalist, I always want to ask "but how do you KNOW?" If the answer is "oh, just a bunch of things together", that's disappointing to me. But if they can say "that grass is Spartina alterniflora; it grows in brackish water, so this spot is probably flooded most of the time"...I love it, and I'll remember it!

Posted by jennformatics almost 7 years ago

In a way for me, it's similar to why I love genealogy. Knowing a person's/organism's history, what they are made up of, where they come from...suddenly we have such a greater understanding and appreciation for what they are and what brought them to this point.

I also think that searching for an organism's identity forces us to look so much more closely. A layperson may recognize that two species are both spiders; someone more familiar may see that they are both orbweavers, or even that they come from the same genus; but sometimes it requires noticing the tiniest, most subtle of details to differentiate the two---this to me indicates that specialized knowledge and great care went into their identification. And, as others have said, greater understanding of species fosters greater appreciation for them and what sets them apart.

It gives me great joy to recognize, for instance, that a given insect looks like an assassin bug but is actually a leaf-footed bug. I proudly fly my geek flag---knowledge is power! :)

Posted by tigerbb almost 7 years ago

I read a nature observation book where the author said that too much focus is on the name. So much so that as soon as someone learns the name that they quite observing it and move on. He argued that one should focus on observing it, learning its habits and characters. Personally, I like knowing the name, but I keep this advice in my head also and try to overcome the desire to "move on" after learning its name.

Posted by pfau_tarleton almost 7 years ago

I've heard that before too. I've never observed it to be the case in practive. But maybe sometimes it is. I think it's hard to learn about things without putting them in some sort of category. If you are on a spiritual wander or something it makes sense not to think about names, and there's no reason to do so. But i'm also not using iNat if that is what i am after.

Posted by charlie almost 7 years ago

I think anyone who is satisfied with simply learning the names of organisms is not really a naturalist at all.

Labelling things with a name is not what nature study is about. But I do think learning some names is the very first step, and a necessary and important one.

You can't make everyone into a naturalist and it is futile to try. As William Healy Dall said in 1886, "naturalists are born not made".

And, there is also no such thing as the perfect way to explore a subject. Every person has their own optimum way to learn. Beginners should not be constrained by experts in books telling them that, "In order to learn about this topic, you must do this, and then do this other thing, and then do this third thing". All that does is turn people off, and make them think they are defective in some way if that does not happen to be their natural style of learning.

Posted by susanhewitt almost 7 years ago

I prefer to call my friends by their given names. :-)

Posted by sherylsr almost 7 years ago

I certainly cannot add any new insights to the volume of excellent responses already provided. For my personal enjoyment, I enjoy knowing what I am looking at if possible and enjoy learning the "name" that we humans have assigned to that "thing" I am looking at and as Chuck said early on...learning how to tell "this thing" from "that thing." I think that is one of the driving forces for birdwatching or many folks in nature observations in general.

Posted by greglasley almost 7 years ago

My thoughts on this are simple. Naming things allows us to categorize and make sense of the organisms around us where we would otherwise behave like a bunch of confused wanderers on a shroom high. It is the basis for understanding such as behavioral and morphological pattern-recognition upon which all further research is based.

Posted by jaykeller almost 7 years ago

I love this passage from T.H. White's The Once and Future King in which Merlin explains," [Learning] is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you." In case it isn't obvious, I'm an English teacher, and I am always encouraging my students to learn, to be curious, to ask questions, to make connections. I cannot, in good conscience, ask them to do that without being intellectually curious myself. To name something in literature and folklore is to have some power over it. That power is knowledge, and naming for me is the first step to understanding more about what I see and the world in which it and I exist. It's a wonderful opportunity to be able to take a picture, receive feedback from this community, and then follow-up on what others have told me.

Posted by octobertraveler almost 7 years ago

I used to be a lot more obsessive about assigning the (hopefully) correct name to everything just to be "right". Now the main benefit I see to it is to make sure that, when I'm talking with another person, we are both referring to the same organism. I've grown a lot more interested in watching and enjoying rather than classifying as I've gotten older.

Posted by troutlily57 almost 7 years ago

I have always thought if an organism does not have a name, or I do not know it, it will prevent me from effectively communicating about my observation(s) of nature.

I think I heard Barron Rector speak to a Master Naturalist class a couple of years ago, he said something like: if the organism does not have a name no one will bother to save it. He basically followed up with that was the reason he studied less popular creatures in his life. After talking to him 1:1 later that day, naming creatures and plants I see has become more important to me as a photographer, teacher and naturalist. This is probably one of the reasons I started posting to iNat.

Posted by scottbuckel almost 7 years ago

Great question, but presumptuously phrased! I DON'T enjoy the challenge of associating the correct scientific name with a local plant: it's too damn hard, pedantic and boring! That said, I have come to grudgingly accept the importance of doing so (or trying). Some plants are so showy and distinctive that the task of ID and remembering the name is simple, but beyond those few, I find that a plant's "story" is what cements it in my brain (whether it is about the plant's use, or unique structure, or interesting place in the ecosystem, or origins and invasive nature, or odd method of reproduction, or whatever). Ideally, the name itself will help tell that interesting story (it helps to know Latin, sadly). Learning the common name is a start, but inadequate (and sometimes leads to frustrating mis-identification or confusion). Example: I spotted "bedstraw" yesterday, and remember it because it brings to my mind a North Texas pioneer dumping a winter's worth of crushed and smelly hay from his/her lumpy mattress and eagerly replacing it with the fresh smelling, springy, clingy, and no doubt way more comfy fill of this interesting and ubiquitous local plant early each Spring. But what exactly is the plant?? I know by its look (and sticky feel), but how to uncover its true character and place in the ecosystem (and perhaps discover even more fun stories and fascinating insights)? Google "bedstraw" and see the diversity of unrelated plants that appear (even if one does some geographical narrowing).. To really "know" the plant, one must, sigh, know its name. No one promised it would be easy (and know that not every eager but impatient naturalist wanna-be will find it as "fun" as some quite obviously do). Grrr.. :)

Posted by rljcal almost 7 years ago

You can associate qualities with individuals... like unique physical traits or behaviors. More knowledge can then lead to deeper appreciation.

I find it especially fun to learn parent taxonomic names. They nicely group many species by their shared evolutionary features. Mallows the world over share the same basic characteristics. There are just a few key things to know about almost all spread-wing damselflies.

Posted by nickmdal almost 7 years ago

The act of learning a specimen's name leads me down a path of discovery. What it is, why is it here, what purpose does it serve? You begin to appreciate the old "everything is tied together" phrase. Learning the name it does become a friend to recognize and welcome anytime you see it. In my pre-Master Naturalist years (all 60 of them) it was a field of weeds. Now it is Little and Big Bluestems and the other prairie grasses. Learning the name and what goes with the name is a trip through history of those that came before us and HAD to describe and classify to teach others. We are the recipients of their work and knowledge.

Posted by mcm almost 7 years ago

Thanks so much to everyone that left a comment and sent me a message about this. I've decided to just read each of these off for my 3 hour lecture! ;)

Seriously though -- these are exactly what I was needing -- thanks big time, friends. :)

Posted by sambiology almost 7 years ago

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