Common names... Oh so many for some, yet for some so few...

So, I've talked to several folks about common names and scientific names. It's a funny thing -- people get bent out of shape about one or the other. It's really nothing to get one's panties in a wad about. :) The organisms don't care what we call them!

However, names of things are the first part of our understanding/appreciation of them. After all, "The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves" (Carolus Linnaeus)...

So, I like to learn as many different names as possible for the organisms. I also like to attach common names to organisms too. Even if it's just a rough translation of the scientific name, I think that's ok. As I communicate with the public, I try to use as many names as I can remember -- "Texas bluebonnet, Texas lupine, or Lupinus texensis."

With iNat, there's one default common name, but there can be multiple common names used (and available for searching). Just look at all of the names for purslane/Portulaca oleracea:

I do like attaching a common name to as many of the species that I observe though. I try my best to remember the scientific names, but many times, I can at least remember a common name.

So, which is better? Well, common names and scientific names both have great uses. Common names are of great use to the general public (the public that should be able to appreciate the organisms without twisting their tongues), and scientific names are of great use to folks that want to understand the organisms' relationships with other organisms.

Both are good to know! :) It's ok to prefer one over the other, but I do hope all can recognize the importance of both based on the audiences. After all, when it comes to nature, all audiences are important!

What do you think?

Posted on 13 July, 2015 21:24 by sambiology sambiology


Another great post! I enjoy using and knowing both names. Sometimes they are hilariously descriptive!

Posted by connlindajo over 8 years ago

I also try to learn both common and scientific names. And I try to learn the etymology of the scientific names too, to help remember them and sometimes learn an interesting story. I find fish particularly annoying because divers/naturalists use a different set of common names from aquarists. Both communities have well established sets of names, such that the other name seems "wrong".

Posted by maractwin over 8 years ago

I'm a scientific name guy myself. My brain's too full to stuff in common names on top. Plus, knowing the scientific name lets me better realize the relationships of organisms within their own higher taxa. This allows me to narrow down an ID faster, getting an organism to family, subfamily, or genus. You may notice than if I suggest an ID, it's often to genus (or higher). I can be fairly confident at that level, even if I'm not familiar with the full range of variability within the genus. But, I don't deal with the public. And when I do, they look at me like I'm from outer space. And, they usually ask what the common name is. At that point, I try to remember (and I do know some), or make one up from the scientific name. This latter approach may not be a good idea, leading to confusion when they go to the guides and try to look it up. I guess I should stop doing that and just admit my lack of knowledge.

My botany buddy call species of Torilis "sock bane". I don't know what the actual common name is, but I always use that one. When I worked in California, my birding cohort called black-shouldered kites (Elanus axillaris) "angel hawks". They can be fun. One of Pete Dunne's books has alternate (funny) common names for birds (I can't remember which book. See, my brain's too full).

The exception for me is birds. I know most by common name, and only some by scientific name. Maybe that's because the common names are thoroughly standardized. Or, maybe that's just how I was raised.

p.s. Dunne's book with alternate common names is "Essential Field Companion". I found it on my bookshelf.

Posted by lfelliott over 8 years ago

I tend to use the scientific names only (with plants, not with animals). I know a few common names, but it is difficult when, as you mentioned, some plants have many and many to most have none. The problem with scientific names is that they're constantly changing as our knowledge of the subject grows. I do like to learn as many of the common names as possible when I'm communicating a lot with people who aren't used to scientific names (my family for instance) and because of that I know the common names of the plants around where I live but not as much around other places (like Alpine, TX where I go to school).

Either way, the problem of what to call something is very annoying and I know many people end up frustrated when they try to remember a scientific name. I've been asked a few times if there is just a source that someone could go to to know what the most recent scientific name for the plant is (I usually recommend The Plant List and a few others).

The nice thing about animals (particularly vertebrates and especially birds) is that the common names are pretty much standardized. The USDA Plants database tried to standardized common names, but I don't think it has really caught on. This might be due in part to the problem that many are even more difficult to learn than the scientific names. This is especially true with the more obscure plants. I think the use of common or scientific names should depend on the situation and whether the plant has a reasonable common name and not a name that is unrelatable. If a plant has a common name but the only one is a name like spring pygmycudweed and the genus name Evax verna (now Diaperia unfortunately), Evax is probably going to be the name that lasts in the person's memory better.

Posted by nathantaylor over 8 years ago

I always find it interesting when taxa pop up that don't have English or even Roman alphabet common names at all. I've added/edited lots of common names, since they can make a big difference in iNaturalist in how easy it is for people to find the taxa they're looking for.

Separately, I wish there was one place on iNaturalist to look for all of the journal posts. Who else writes interesting posts? I want to follow them!

Posted by carrieseltzer over 8 years ago

I used-ta-be a staunch user of ONLY scientific names with the plants, but since I've been working a little closer to the public and not as much in the ivory tower of academia, I force myself to learn the common name(s). As noted before, sometime the common names are hilarious and memorable!

The scientific names are fun to say too -- I notice this when I rattle one off to a kiddo. "Urocyon cinereoargenteus" is a fun tongue twister to play with as we talk about the grey fox. "Bouteloua curtipendula" just rolls off the tongue. :)

When people get annoyed about the changes to the scientific names, I (like many of you) use this as a window to discuss our understanding of the relationships of organisms -- when we find out something new about its relationship, we address that by changing the genus/family/clade, etc...

I try to add in the common names for the species without them on iNat as well -- I hope it doesn't upset others. Usually, I'm just translating the Latin. :)

Posted by sambiology over 8 years ago

Funny you brought this up now. I have just been contemplating how many common names something can have. With the boom in Argiope aurantia right now, it's hard to tell the public what it is. Golden orb weaver, garden spider, zipper spider, black and yellow spider, and the one I hate because it makes it sound like a deadly spider from the tropics, banana spider. As if that weren't enough, on the same hike we will come across the mud "chimney" of the crustacean known as crayfish, crawfish, crawdad, or mud bug. Sometimes it takes going through all those before I get a glimmer of recognition from the listener. If we all spoke scientific nomenclature, life would be simpler, right? Well, no, that keeps changing, too - and, besides, who takes Latin anymore, especially with made up names created to sound like Latin? Onfusing-cay, ight-ray? Oops, that's pig Latin.

Posted by naturemom over 8 years ago

This one made me laugh!! It's a great post. I love both naming conventions for different reasons. The Common Name (or lack of one) gives me something to commit to memory and add to my notebooks and share with others on hikes. The scientific name encourages me to consider the connectedness of everything- in an evolutionary sense and ecological. Also- decoding how an organism's name came to be is sometimes a hilarious venture of its own. :)

Posted by becca_nh over 8 years ago

US birds, butterflies and odes have organizations that regulate Common Names, so there I have no problem with them. With arthropods and plants it's a whole different story...and unless there's a "universal" common name, I don't use them in public speaking as many bugs have no recognized common name, and plants have geographically-based common names...not made up by some botanist in the USDA or iNat user.

When I first moved to Texas from Minnesota I was speaking to a long time gardener about plants. She mentioned that Old Maids don't do well in this area of Texas. Well, being an old maid myself I was rather concerned and perplexed until a younger person assured me that it was the flower, Zinnia, being referred to.

The whole point of the binomial system is to enhance communication...and one will get a lot more accurate info Googling a binomial than only a regional or made-up common name. One Facebook user heard that her plants were "Naked Ladies" and slogged through a lot of porn sites and titillating images before she found her flower.

In iNat, the ability for anyone at anytime to add or edit a common name makes it more confusing IMHO. Since the main partner org, GBIF, only uses binomials, there are now at least 6 misidentified butterflies in GBIF with a research grade... because someone at some time added the same common name for two different species. I've run across one genus that had the same very generic common name attached to 8-10 species. How is that less confusing to a new user? Or even a so-called power user? Every ID has to be scrutinized to ensure the correct binomial taxon is chosen from the raft of the exact same common name.

In database lingo, the relationship between common names and the binomial is called many-to-one. I've regretted since day one that iNat forces a one-to-one relationship. At least now we can change our profile place and then edit or remove common names for our specific location.

Whew, can you tell I feel strongly about this :)


Posted by krancmm over 8 years ago

Oh Monica, that poor woman looking for information about "naked ladies"! That made me lol.

What do you mean that "iNat forces a one-to-one relationship"? A binomial can have many common names (one to many) and a common name could also have many binomials. Can you clarify what you mean?

Posted by carrieseltzer over 8 years ago

Yes, I will Carrie...if you're willing to wait a while. I just realized that in 3 days I'm going out of town for a month....aargh.

Posted by krancmm over 8 years ago

I'll still be here when you get back :-)

Posted by carrieseltzer over 8 years ago

I wish someone would standardize (and where necessary create) English language common names for all mollusks. Admittedly that would be a huge undertaking and more or less a thankless task; all you would get would be complaints from people when their favorite common name was ignored in favor of another name.

I have learned the scientific names, and I try to keep up to date with the changing taxonomy as best as I can. (With marine species of every kind, thank goodness for the website WoRMS which makes it easy to update taxonomy!

I know very few common names for shells, but when I started going to Sanibel, Florida, a few years ago I discovered that all the shell collectors there were using common names (not surprising) so I struggled to learn those as well, because otherwise I could not talk to the anyone on the beach about what they were finding!
The few common names I know from up here in New York State were not the same as the ones that the Florida shellers use.

Of course I prefer the scientific names, but then I did do Latin for a few years at school, and that really helps a lot. I wish they had also made us take a couple of years of ancient Greek too...

Posted by susanhewitt over 8 years ago


If I may explain what I think Sam meant:

There are some species which have several different common names.

In some other cases, one common name is applied to half a dozen different taxa, often to several different species in the same genus, but in some cases to species in different families or even in different phyla!

Posted by susanhewitt over 8 years ago

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