How are common names established?

just curious… how are common names established? i know how to technically add them in the system, but who decides that a given species should have a particular common name? for example, i made an observation of a Brachypremna dispellens, which doesn’t seem to have a common name. it is a very long-legged, white-footed crane fly that likes to hang from vegetation on its 4 front legs when not bouncing around. other crane flies have long legs (though maybe not quite this long), and other crane flies bounce around, but the white feet and the hanging behavior seem to be relatively unusual. so i was thinking white-footed hanging crane fly might be a good common name. how many people do i have to convince that that’s a good name, or are there specific people to convince or a specific process for convincing people before i can feel good about adding that as a common name to the system?

UPDATE: it looks like there may be other white-footed hanging crane flies, but i guess the general question remains: how do common names get established?

As far as I’m aware, there are zero rules whatsoever surrounding common name creation. This is why scientific names are so important! The fish Pomatomus saltatrix is called tailor, bluefish, shad or elf depending on where you are, which makes things very confusing. If someone were to say to me they went fishing and caught a tailor, I’d know exactly what they meant, but if they told me they caught an elf I’d have no clue. Scientific names solve this problem by providing a universal name. Obviously these can change due to species being collapsed into one, split into two, etc., but only one valid scientific name exists for each species at a given time.

Common names are also generally dodgy because they can be uninformative. Do you know what type of animal a spiny lumpsucker is? I certainly didn’t know it was a fish before Googling it.

However, having said all this, common names do serve a purpose in connecting non-scientists/naturalists with nature. Your average person in the street may not know what an Ursus maritimus is, but they certainly recognise the name polar bear.

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There are some efforts to establish and maintain standardized common names for some groups of animals. For example, the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) maintains a list of herps of North America that includes standardized English names. My understanding is that this organization invents appropriate English names for newly described/defined taxa if none otherwise exists.

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Based on this discussion in the iNat Google Group it seems that some field guide authors make up common names for their guide:

When we prepared the field guide to northeastern moths we made the conscious decision to ensure that every single species in the book had a common name, for this reason - making it easier on beginners. We coined a lot ourselves as a result (incidentally, Charles Covell coined lots for his landmark guide, too, since even fewer had established common names then).

Later in the same thread @loarie added, regarding iNat policy:

I don’t think we have an official policy, but ideally names should be
widely used and be sourced.

The only time I can think that I’ve made up a common name is when a
genus has like 5 members all of them with common names except one and
they all have the same format, e.g. XXX’s glider & the species
epithets are all from people’s names, so e.g. I might make up Hohn’s
Glider for the missing one if the species name was Charlius hohnius or
something

And after that, James Bailey offered:

There is not really such thing as names being widely used and sourced. These days, if it is in a book, or on a popular website (like bugguide), that’s usually enough to qualify as “wide use”. Not everyone likes me for it but I am notorious at making new common names for species that don’t have any (for instance, for species in a genus that are otherwise all given common names). If we call bugguide “wide use”, then adding them on iNaturalist is similar. The editors on bugguide do not consult anyone when they add their common names, they just make them. So I occasionally do the same, if I see a fit scenario to do so.

That discussion was from 2017 so people’s views may have changed in the time since then.

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Common names carry cultural traditions that in many regions predate formal species publication by centuries—so yes they definitely serve a fundamental purpose even if they are not reliable as a reference for scientific use.

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This is just my perspective, but I don’t think we should be making up common names. They are not common if we make them up… vernacular names should be in common usage somewhere or somehow… if you have taken to calling something “Fred’s sparrowhawk” amongst a group of your friends, seperately to the act of adding a vernacular to iNat, then that would classify enough as common usage. But to gather a group of friends and decide to give something a common name is to me a little contrived and pointless… as a group you know it by the binomial, so any name you come up with is not in common usage anywhere!

The case of a fieldguide making up names… that is an interesting one. It points to a need of the audience to have vernaculars, and I think it is unique to that situation. If the field guide reaches any sort of an audience, enough for any two people to communicate about that species by using that vernacular, then I would include it in iNat.

In short, I think if YOU are the one making up the common name, then it should not be YOU that adds it to iNat…

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Oh boy, don’t get me started… :expressionless: I definitely agree with and support all of the responses so far.

One plea I will make, regardless of “sourcing” of common names, is that folks avoid more-or-less literal translations of scientific names to be used as common names. If we call Cryptantha hoffmannii “Hoffmann’s cryptantha,” and then later the scientific name gets changed to Oreocarya hoffmannii, does the common name then become “Hoffmann’s oreocarya”? If yes, then it was never a common name to begin with. It was just a non-Latin scientific name. (I have reviewed too many technical manuscripts attempting to propose such things!) If it didn’t change, then maybe it really is a common name, though I would still question its presence in the common vernacular of any area.

A local botanist and early mentor of mine, Mary DeDecker (1909-2000), once wrote that the best common names are often those used by children. They tend to capture the imagination and are more likely to “stick” in vernacular usage. I couldn’t agree more. Common names are hugely important in the public-facing work that I do (and that iNaturalist does!), and names that stick and capture the imagination can only be to the good. So in the rare cases where I’ve felt compelled to “invent” a common name, I have tried to channel the inner child… (or have been fortunate to be in the presence of others who already had done so!)

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Absolutely! I think whoever coined the vernacular for Cochlicella barbara did a fantastic job… only I had been asking for over a year of everyone I came across if they knew what this small pointy snail was, until @susanhewitt IDd it for me as the “Small pointed snail”… the vernacular namer in this case definitely channeled their inner child!

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This is the exact situation we have in Tasmania, which as a botanist has me rolling on the floor laughing fairly frequently: we have an officially-sanctioned (as in the relevant Govt. departments all support it) list of mostly made-up common names with hilarious examples like Curtis’ Colobanth for Colobanthus curtisiae. The common names get changed every time a revision results in a different scientific name.

It seems to me like this has all the disadvantages of scientific names with none of the advantages.

I am more of the opinion (as a botanist) that a plant does not need a common name if people aren’t talking about it, and those that get talked about (from being useful, showy, common…) already have them.

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exactly! It can’t be in common usage if it’s not in usage!

it might be a chicken or the egg thing though… any vernacular has got to be used first at some point in time. I guess the question becomes “what is a valid first use of a vernacular”, and listing it in a reference to vernaculars commonly used should most definitely NOT be the first use

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Trying to make common names match the scientific names is a bad move. We had someone try to come through and rename all New England plants to match the scientific names. Turning eastern cottonwood to “necklace poplar” because populus didn’t mean cottonwood or something. And a bunch of other stuff. It confused a bunch of other people and is also kinda cultural erasure. If you want scientific names use scientific names.

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Yeah, it seems like someone at USDA decided at one point that all members of the genus Eriogonum had to have common names ending in “wild buckwheat” even when other less rule-bound names were already in common usage. What happens when the inevitable breakup of Eriogonum comes to pass?

And after all, “cottonwood” is such a thoroughly descriptive name for those trees!

I’m about 90% in agreement here. One context where it can be problematic is when a list of recommended conservation targets is presented to the public, some with “intelligible” names and others without. Tends to call into question why these “gobbledy-gook” (scientific name) species are on the list, and why should we care about them. Common names help level the playing field for more obscure species of conservation concern.

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I am 1 of 4 siblings. As it so happens we all live in areas with different languages: Italian, Swiss German (ZH), Danish and ZA English. The next generation is talking Swiss German (BE), French and Danish. together they talk French, English, Norwegian/Danish …
Common names in our family are totally useless :-D

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I scuba dive and lots of things didn’t have common names when I started or you had no way to ID the creature to learn its handle because of the scarcity of ID books for unusual things. A lot of the dive guides used scientific names, which when said with different accents caused confusion and didn’t help the common folk. For example, for a while my scuba group thought that shrimp in the genus Saron were Salon Shrimp, which made no sense to us. I finally asked a guide what it meant and he pulled out one of a huge library of ID books in Japanese and showed me the picture of Saron marmoratus. We later learned them as Marble Shrimp (and isn’t that genus wonderfully marbled?) but everyone has also learned the scientific name because of the embarrassment of misunderstanding the guides’ accent.

I made up names so people I dive with who don’t care about scientific names (I know, why do I dive with these people? ;-) know what I mean and have something to use when they show their photos to their friends.

For example, we saw the Magnificent Anemone Shrimp (Ancylomenes magnificus) for years before I was able to ID it, so I called it the Huggy Shrimp because of the way it holds its front legs folded up like it’s hugging itself. I don’t encounter it on the Magnificent Anemone, so I find its “official” common name confusing, although when asked for ID now, I give both: " You can look it up under Magnificent Anemone Shrimp, but I call it the Huggy Shrimp for myself." And then they get treated to a small lecture on symbiosis.

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Hi @jbecky,

This is wonderful, and a great example of how common names can come to be. It also shows why trying to standardise them and determine that there is one ‘correct’ common name and many ‘wrong’ ones is so futile!

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