A use case for common names

I have seen some people here say that they avoid common names. Well, that has scientific validity. But the problem with it is that taxonomists keep themselves occupied by doing revisions. Why are these studies called “revisions”? Because it is taken for granted that some taxa are going to be reclassified. If a researcher studied say, Tribe Anthuriae, and concluded that it was all correct just as it stood, well, then they would have nothing to publish, would they?

Snarkiness aside, this can make it difficult to do a proper survey of the literature on a taxon. Take Helminthotheca echioides. A very abundant weed here in the Bay Area – one of our most abundant, in fact. But I couldn’t find it in my Peterson Field Guide. Is it a recent introduction, i.e. post 1976? No. The trick is to go by common name. Look in the index for “Ox Tongue, bristly.” There it is, page 218 – as Picris echioides. So if I was doing a literature review on the taxon, now I would know how to find papers written prior to the most recent revision. The common name did not change.

Another example. I reared some Caribbean caterpillars, and tentatively IDed the resulting imagoes as Herpetogramma antillalis. Now, there is pretty much nothing on this taxon. I hoped that maybe finding the original species description would help me to verify the ID, but I couldn’t find it. It was only because someone in-the-know sent me a link with the original description of Psara antillalis that I was able to access it. Since this moth has no common name, I had no way to know, without being told, that these two binomials referred to one and the same taxon. A common name – if it was stable over time – would have helped.


Any good taxonomic database worth its salt (and even bad ones) will have a list of synonyms and old names for every species. Take your Helminthotheca echioides for example. Go to the POWO page for that species and click the synonyms tab; you’ll see not only is P. echioides a synonym/old name, but there are 16 other names that have variously been synonymised under it.

Wikipedia often lists synonyms too; e.g., on the Wikipedia page for your moth Herpetogramma antillalis, it lists P. antillalis as a synonym.

So if you’re struggling to match/find a species, a google search for the name should retrieve synonyms in almost all cases.

And indeed in many databases, it will actually tell you why each deprecated name is a synonym (e.g. as one random example, see the Australian Plant Name Index page for the native pea Daviesia ulicifolia)


This is a topic that’s had a lot of discussion here.

As I’ve said a number of other times in the forum, I am firmly in favor of common names. Not only due to the issues of taxonomic revision, but for a bunch of other reasons too.

Aside from the stability issue, they often have names that contain cultural, historical, or use-based information, unlike a disturbing about of scientific names which are centered around the name of the person who scientifically described them (or someone they were sleeping with).

They provide a quick shorthand, even for professionals (eg. we all know birds are dinosaurs, but even paleontologists will use “dinosaur” to refer to non-avian dinosaurs as 'dinosaurs; because it’s a convenient and widely understood shorthand).

They facilitates communication and interest in the natural world among non-professionals who are often intimidated by scientific names.

They change by region and people. Some think of this as one of their detriments, but it’s one of those things that’s actually really useful and interesting in other people centered fields, such as anthropology, sociology, human geography, linguistics, etc.

Are scientific names more useful? When it comes to understanding relationships between species, yes.

Are they more uniform? Well, kind of, but often not, given that many species have a wide variety of synonyms and many people use older synonyms rather than the most current and up-to-date name.

We need both. They each serve useful and beneficial purposes.

To my mind trying to insist that everyone, including non-professionals and people with casual interest, use only scientific names is both elitist and culturally questionable at best (unless you’re writing an academic paper).


Not everything has common name and it’s a fact, many are against their use at all (and also iNat will recognise your old latin name if it’s listed in synonyms too), but who really cares how each of us prefers to use names? You don’t need some valid reason to use common names. I use them because on default my keyboard is for Russian, I need to switch to English to type latin name, for some species I remember both names, but common names in native language will always be easier and as I’m not a taxonomist it’s not “painful” to hear same “genus” name for the whole family or different families sharing it, and I don’t need some expert in moths for example to come and verify my knowledge of the group, even if it’s very messy when it’s Xanthorhoe species called in Russian after latin Larentia, but if I and someone else uses it, it’s valid.


Neither did the species name. Often I will search only species name. I used to know Anarta trifolii as Scotogramma trifolii and Mythimna unipuncta as Pseudaletia unipuncta. I use the species name whenever I do a search as it will return results for both Generic names. Similarly, when using an older onlind source, like the 1954 paper by Forbes, I use Ctrl/F to open a search line and use the species name to search the document. Many species have changed genus, but the species description remains valid. Oddly, though, I use common names for birds as they seem more standard than moth names.


And how would you work with papers in other languages? We call it “aspraggine” here, not “Lingua di Bue setolosa”.

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When the topic of common names comes up, I’m often reminded of this discussion which can be found here in an old checklist of North American herpetofauna: https://ssarherps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Crother.pdf

Some workers will decry the effort on standard English names with the
argument that only scientific names matter. In defense of this effort, we acknowledge the wisdom of the first committee (Conant et al., 1956) and quote
from their paper (pp. 172–173):
“Workers who hold that common names have no place in the scientific zoological literature may ignore them. Such workers, however, might do well to read the following paragraph quoted from George Wald
(Biochemical Evolution, in Trends in Physiology and Biochemistry, Edited
by E. S. Guzman Barron, Academic Press, N. Y., 1952:337–376).
“In the original version of this table, Nuttall mentions Cynocephalus
mormon and sphinx, omitting their common names. I have learned since
that one is the mandrill and the other the guinea baboon. Since Nuttall wrote in 1904, these names have undergone the following vagaries: Cynocephalus mormon became Papio mormon, otherwise Papio maimon, which turned to Papio sphinx. This might well have been confused with
Cynocephalus, now become Papio sphinx, had not the latter meanwhile
been turned into Papio papio. This danger averted, Papio sphinx now
became Mandrillus sphinx, while Papio papio became Papio comatus. All
I can say to this is, thank heavens one is called the mandrill and the other
the guinea baboon. Anyone who supposes, as Nuttall apparently did, that
he improves matters by giving their taxonomic designations is only asking
for trouble, and is more likely to mislead the reader than to inform him.”


I do not think that only binomial names matter. Species are broken up, and this can be confusing.
But common names can be even more confusing. The Arnata trifollii was known as the Clover Cutworm in Canada. I still have not gotten used to ‘The Nutmeg’ as a common name. It sounds stupid.
Names are always a bit of a guessing game.

Agreed. Nutmeg Moth would make sense I suppose (not being a moth person myself), but The Nutmeg sounds like a joke and isn’t helpful.

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That cannot be counted on, as I have seen revisions where the new genus already has another species in it with the same specific epithet, so the one being moved has to have a new one. And I see that @jnstuart 's baboon and mandrill example included just this circumstance.

My point was that using the English common name let me find the prior scientific names. Depending on when the paper on aspraggine was written, it might be Helminthotheca echioides or Picris echioides.

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I agree entirely. I’ve done literature searches on dozens of taxa for review articles, and it was often necessary to use a combination of the common names and the Latin names to track a particular population over the years. With lumping, splitting, revising, typos (you would be surprised how often the older literature includes typos in Latin names, many of which get copied into subsequent references) etc. having another name thread to follow was often necessary. Common names change over time too, but with two shifting threads it is often possible to track what one would not have allowed.


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