Common names from "not good enough" sources

Hi All,

I wanted to try to feel out people’s opinions on what common names are, at their core. There seem to be two interpretations that I see commonly on iNaturalist. The first interpretation is that they are just whatever names people use for taxa (one might term this “descriptive”). The second interpretation is that they are specific non-scientific names decided upon by experts (one might term this “prescriptive”). In the first interpretation, any source for a common name should do, and common names might be a bit plastic on our end. In the second, common names are more rigid on our end and should only be sourced from specific compiled lists; they are also subject to being changed by experts if taxonomic opinions change. I bring up this topic since I have seen a few flags about common names which are clearly in use online, calling for their removal only because they are not found in field guides or scientific publications, and this has got me thinking about my interactions with them on iNaturalist and elsewhere. I am curious if there is a consensus about what to do in these cases, as well.

What follows next will be my opinion on the topic.

I understand and agree with the need to have some selectivity with regards to common name use on iNaturalist. Good examples of undesirable names, I think, are names which contain possibly offensive terms (i.e. “Indian,” “Confederate”), names which are in common use for multiple taxa in different areas, and names which are clearly 100% fabricated by a user adding them to a taxon (not in use anywhere else, and not related to other common names in use).

This said, I would describe my interpretation of common names as interpretation one above, that as long as a group of people are using them somewhere, then they should be fine. I do not really see the point of regulating them like we do scientific names.

My understanding of scientific names is that they are artificial constructs whose primary function is to allow people to unambiguously (I know this is often not true) talk about a particular organism. They do not belong to any language, but are rather overlaid on every language, so that regardless of what language you speak, it can be clear what organism you are referring to (I know in practice this is fairly western-centric, as they do use a particular alphabet and primarily a pair of languages from southern Europe). Additionally, scientific names are regulated by the various nomenclatural codes in place, which indicate ways in which one could change names, and which names are preferred among homonyms, synonyms, etc. (I assume; I am only familiar with the ICN, which does do these things).

If we try to regulate common names in the same or a similar way, as far as I can tell, we are just creating multiple parallel, worse nomenclatural systems. In the case of common names, a single set for the world cannot do; there has to be a different set for each language, and it is impossible to talk between languages with them in many cases. Common names are also not formally regulated in any way; you have to just rely on a consensus among experts that might not exist (and not just for taxonomic reasons, which would be an issue in any case). Common names don’t exist for every organism; this is true for scientific names as well, but I would hazard a guess that more organisms have scientific names than common names. It also just feels like a waste of effort; we already have scientific names that do these things as well or better.

It also seems to me that, unlike scientific names which take into account taxonomy, common names coined by experts in books or publications are not inherently better than common names coined by people online. They can be equally random and arbitrary, or invented with a motivation in the same way. Two examples come to mind that I am particularly aware of. The Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms contains almost entirely common names coined by the author and often little used elsewhere; sometimes the taxa already had more accepted common names. Another example is the name “Beach Broccoli” for Cladonia submitis , which has appeared (as far as I can tell) solely in a handful of sources (including a peer-reviewed article https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-020-01983-x) where two or three people refer to it as that. I am not saying that these names should not be used, only that they are not less arbitrary than someone online making up a name that ultimately a group of people start using. One could make an argument for accessibility with regards to common field guides, but in an era where so much information is online, I would argue that scientific publications and books are less accessible, not more.

I also alluded earlier to thinking about my interactions with common names, and an issue of plasticity and rigidity on our end. I personally try not to use common names at all, and prefer scientific names; I set my account to show scientific names first and common names in parentheses a long time ago. I do try to be helpful with them, especially with fungal taxa on iNaturalist. Unfortunately, many common names in use predate molecular work and the extensive taxonomic changes in Mycology over the last few decades. As such, a lot of these “expert names” are useless, as they refer to multiple taxa spread through Europe and North America (usually), and often people do not bother to coin new common names as the taxonomy changes. People in both places still use the name, though. In that case, should both be deleted? Should they be changed so that one says “European” and the other “American,” even if these names are not used in practice? Should the group containing all of these just be given the common name (perhaps pluralized), even if locally, it is only applied to a single species? To my mind, the second and third should be acceptable, even if they are technically “inventing new names,” as the alternatives of deleting all instances of the name, leaving all instances of the name, or leaving the name for only a particular taxon have greater potential for confusion.

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Both, but deciding which name should be the default one for a taxon choosing 2nd option (expert-verified name) is needed if it exists. Common names often overlap, so a system needed anyway.

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Scientific names can be so instable that people to unambiguously (I know this is often not true) talk about a particular organism they refer to the common name cause that one did not change one, two or three times in the last 25 years as the scientific name did.

In the second, common names are more rigid on our end and should only be sourced from specific compiled lists; they are also subject to being changed by if taxonomic opinions change.

True! Example a coomon bug XY is split into two species XY and PQ. The original species lives only in America with name XY and in Europe the species becomes PQ. Then you should expect that the german name for XY is ported to the name PQ, cause the original species XY is not living in Germany anymore.

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I’m probably one of the more prolific flaggers of common names on here, as the group I work on, corals, has little in the way of a codified common nomenclature. This has led to a variety of competing names appearing in field guides, aquarium literature, and the peer-reviewed literature, along with plenty that have been created de novo on here. To give an extreme example, there are literally thousands of “common names” that could be applied to a genus like Zoanthus using the metric that is being proposed here. There are also plenty of common names that are indiscriminately applied to unrelated corals owing to their superficial similarity. What is a Colt Coral? What is a Broccoli Coral? What is a Brain Coral? It really depends on who you ask. There is no standard usage, so these names are somewhat meaningless.

It’s important to document these names when they are in reasonably common usage, but I’d argue that it’s equally important not to promote a name as being the common name, unless it has a legitimate claim to that title. That’s the problem I see with the default common name as it is used on iNaturalist. I’m not familiar with how the curation of this field works on here, but is it possible to list common names in the profile of a taxon without having any single name show up as the default? I think that would be an acceptable solution to this dilemma of dubious nomenclature.

With regards to the larger point about how we should define common names, I think it’s important to consider the role they are meant to serve. These function as a non-Linnaean alternative to accurately identify taxa. In that sense, it’s vital to properly vet these on iNaturalist, especially given the reach this website has with the general public.

To use a somewhat hyperbolic example… there’s no reason why camels shouldn’t also be known as “lumpy horses”. Here’s a quick Google search showing 3000+ uses of that name for camels. That is, by the loose nomenclatural definition, a perfectly valid common name. I imagine if you ask people what a “lumpy horse” is, a large number could correctly guess a camel. But do we want to recognize that? Is it worth adding “lumpy horse” to the list of acceptable common names? This is why I strongly advocate for a standard of some sort being used for these names, something more robust than “it’s a name that appears on the internet somewhere”. Peer-reviewed journals, published field guides, and official lists from biological organizations are the gold standard for what constitutes a good common name, the sort that can safely be used as the default common name for a taxon on here.

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Ah, I see. I don’t think I had understood part of your arguments previously, in particular the difference between “a” common name and “the” or “the preferred” common name. This I can understand better. I can understand reluctance to promote a common name not very much or very long in use as somehow the single thing that everyone calls it, rather than a name that a fair number of people call it. Without doing away with common names as the default titles of taxa on iNat entirely, or listing all of them (which would not work in cases where there is only the one), I am not sure how to overcome the idea of it somehow advocating one above others.

I still largely disagree with the importance of having a second, different set of names for unambiguously talking about taxa, I think, but that is okay.

For the last point, I don’t really see a problem with it. If you can say that the phrase “lumpy horses” unambiguously refers to camels, which it seems you are, then I don’t see what harm it does to include it as a common name, though it should definitely not be the preferred common name, as it is obviously not used anywhere near as often as “camels.”

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it really should be though, right? they’re lumpy horses. it’s a perfect name for that creature.

lumpy horses > camels

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Haha, it is.

I haven’t experimented to verify this yet, but I think if all common names in a language were ticked False for “currently accepted,” then none would display as the default. What I don’t know is whether a name from another language would then become the global default for languages missing their own accepted common name. If that’s the case, then all common names in all languages on a taxon would have to be ticked False to prevent display of any common name.

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It seems like a better functionality would be to require the default name to be manually selected, rather than automated to whatever is currently “not false”

Yes, and that’s generally what the current functionality supports. Will have to experiment before knowing how that interacts with currently accepted = False.

Setting currently accepted = false for anything other than a scientific name has no impact on its use. It will be printed in strike through on the taxonomy names section, but will still show as the display name otherwise.

The only way to make a name that is entered in a language not display would be either to remove it entirely or add the scientific name as a name in that language and set it to a higher priority within the language. So for example add Branta canadensis as a name in English and set it to the highest priority within English.

Needless to say, this is not a recommended practice.

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Like James I more or less ignore common names but, as a mycologist, and also working in a country with a strong indigenous culture I have a couple of significant issues. The first is the application of common names to higher taxa which are alsmost always too specific for fungi. For example Agaricales = “common gilled mushrooms an allies”. In fact there are many commonly encountered groups of fungi with gills that are unrelated to the Agaricales, and conversely many members of the Agaricales don’t have gills. There are lots of these very imprecise common names. These kinds of labels are misleading, and the problem gets worse as you rise up the taxonomic hierarchy. Morphology does not always follow modern systematic classification in the fungi, and it confuses people to pretend that it does. The second goes to the heart of ‘common names’ as alternatives to Linnean scientific names. ‘Common names’ would serve that function better, and provide more flexibility, if it were possible to associate one common name with multiple scientific names. For the fungi molecuar data is showing here are vast numbers of cryptic species that look identical (even with microscopy in some cases). A classic example here in New Zealand is the iconic ‘purple pouch’ fungus which we now know to represent at least 5 indistinguishable species of Cortinarius. To be clear, this is not a ‘species complex’, these 5 species are unrelated. Here is an instance where the common name ‘purple pouch’, meaning ‘one of these 5 species’ would have value beyond the genus-level identification. Equally importantly our indigenous Māori population should be supported in maintaining their language and cultural traditions. Many of the Maori language names for fungi relate to multiple species, as defined by our western science. To dismiss those names, or force them into an incorrect one-to-one relationship with a selected Linnean name is wrong, and cuturally offensive in my view. So I think there is a lot of complexity around ‘common names’ that we tend to gloss-over.

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Hmm, okay. This is also a good point I had not considered. I had been thinking more or less in terms of one-to-one correspondences, but your point that this isn’t how common names are used sometimes makes sense. That is another thing that seems like it would be difficult to implement in the taxonomic hierarchy system of iNaturalist.

“Common Gilled Mushrooms and Allies” was my attempt to fix the use of just “Gilled Mushrooms” for Agaricales without just deleting the name in response to a long-standing flag. Perhaps it should just be deleted, though.

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One of my issues with this ongoing common name discussion is that it’s extremely North America and Europe centric, and even within that it’s mainly English centered.

I’m working on a small island in Vietnam right now, has a total population of around 20,000 people (and 2.4 million tourists per year, unfortunately), of which maybe 10,000 are actually from the island. It’s roughly 20km by 18km and much of the island is pretty much inaccessible due to the karst terrain.

Even in this area when I ask the local members of my anti-poaching teams what the name for something is that I’ve seen or photographed it’s common for there to be 5 or 6 different common names in use, just in is little area. This situation is replicated widely across the world.

In the US, take Puma concolor: is it a puma, a mountain lion, a catamount, a cougar, a red tiger, or something else? If we take puma as the name we then have to take into account that that was a name specific to the Quechua language and therefore is ‘disrespectful’ to the names for the animal that other native languages had, such as suçuarana derived from the Tupi language in Brazil, the language ‘cougar’ ultimately comes from. That ignores the thousands of other names it had across its range.

Should we be trying to force Ndebele speakers to use the word ‘zebra’ (a name ultimately derived from Latin) instead of the local word idube? They live in one of the areas these animals come from, so why should we make them use a European word? Or should Siswati speakers be forced to abandon the use of lidvubu to refer to the same animal?

I fully understand the frustration over different common names for the same species and the same common name referring to multiple species, it can make things confusing.

However, I very much think that getting in a fuss over it is not productive, demonstrates a massive cultural bias that does a disservice to cultures and dying languages across the world, and it ultimately ignores the reason why scientific names were established in the first place; one is for standardization and classification, the other is for common, daily usage, and that will vary by region and language, as it should.

Not everything needs to be, or should be standardized. You’d think it was ridiculous if someone started saying that there are too many types of coffee (or tea, or beer, or ice cream, etc) and we should all just settle on one type only. The same, in my view, is true of common names.

Enjoy the diversity of common names. They each carry a bit of interesting and important cultural history with them.

Here an extract from a bit I wrote a few years back about the various common names of ladybugs that highlights a bit of this celebration of different common names and what the common names can tell you about the culture surrounding the organism:

The name “Ladybug” or “Lady Beetle” supposedly derives from vast numbers of ladybugs descending on pest infested fields after villagers prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect their crops. In Germany one of the names was Mary’s Chicken, in Sweden The Virgin Mary’s Golden Hen, in Spain Gods Little Cow, in Turkey they have the name Good Luck Bug, and in Yiddish they are called Moses’s Little Cow. In Russia seeing a ladybug indicates that a wish will soon be granted or is an indication to make a wish. Before Christianity took over northern Europe their name was tied with the Norse goddess Frejya rather than with Mary. Nearly all the names for ladybugs indicate how well respected and loved they are, though there are a few names that reflect the burning aspect of the chemical defense they use to deter larger predators.

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To many people, “bug” is a perfectly acceptable common name for literally any insect. A “worm” is just about any vaguely vermiform creature. On a finer scale, a “brain coral” can be one of about a dozen unrelated genera or families. When science advances our understanding, it becomes incumbent on our nomenclature to catch up. Why not attach adjectives to those Cortinarius species that celebrates the Maori culture? The phenotype can still be referenced as the “purple pouches”, but with species-specific common names.

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@earthknight I apologize for that fact. Most of the common names I come into contact with here in New England are either names made up by white Americans, or imported directly from Europe, and maybe handful of names imported from Japan. What isn’t is usually pretty divorced from context when I come into contact with it.

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Or maybe horses are just flat camels? :thinking:

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I believe in these cases what we need is a complete translation of the website with common names of those languages. And today we miss common names of common species even for big European countries.

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That would work, but be a massive undertaking.

Just picking the most “common” local name itself is fraught with complication… what if there are 5 or 6 equally used common names? What if the common name varies widely region to region in the same country?

I’d advocate for including all the common names that are actually in use, even if they’re not used all that much or specific to a local area, and absolutely avoiding either inventing new common names artificially or trying to standardize common names.

Look at how many food crops we lost when standardization came into agriculture, in lettuce alone we lost more than 100 varieties, and we lost more than that by a large amount of apple varieties. We are losing languages across the globe at similar rates to our loss of species. We shouldn’t be talking about increasing the amount of standardization and intentionally throwing away the diversity of language, names, meaning, culture, and history…

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Is part of the issue also just the single notion of a “common name”?
As an outsider learning about the use of the term, it kind of sounds like the entire concept needs an overhaul.

The invention of names for lesser known taxa that have never had a common name seems valid and important to me. But I totally get that even calling these “common names” and placing them conceptually alongside real common names with historical precedent is very problematic for the reasons @earthknight says.

It seems like the idea of a “common name” actually comprises of conceptually quite distinct entities.
“historically common names” , “new common names”, “invented names”
and probably more… each with very different implications depending on taxa and location.

( or are there already different terms for the different kinds of common names? )

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