Inventing common names redux

Older topics dealing with this have been closed (e.g. If mods want to roll this into one of those, that’s probably a good idea.

The bowfin (previously one species, Amia calva) has been revised: .The authors of the publication suggested common names, which is outside the generally accepted scope of scientific publications but not terribly uncommon for vertebrates. iNaturalist has not only adopted the authors’ suggested common name for the novel (actually resurrected) species but has tacked the modifier ruddy onto bowfin for A.calva. Wikipedia has done the same, for what it’s worth.


What is the actual standard for adopting common names. Is one primary reference, less than a year old, sufficient? That isn’t how common/vernacular names are supposed to work, is it?


iNaturalist seems to have preferences about where common names should come from or how they should originate, but while scientific names must follow certain rules, common names aren’t restricted by a Code of Nomenclature. I figure one of the perks of putting a lot of time into writing a taxonomic publications is that you can suggest common names for the taxa involved. Hopefully, if you’ve worked with all the species, you can suggest good common names for those taxa that don’t have don’t already have something. And if other people don’t like it… then they can come up with their own common names to use. May the best name win.


I know iNat tries to have like, a policy about this but yknow really? I think it just depends on who’ll get mad about it or not lol. Bird people having really strict, formalized common names (which ive always found really silly honestly) vs say, freshwater fish, where english common names will just kinda be invented by the aquarium hobby for a lot of aquarium fish, or bugs where sometimes people will just sorta literally translate the binomial (its happened a few times in the roach hobby with really obscure ones entering the hobby, a la Chorisoneura parishi → “Parish’s Thin-nerved Roach”)


I wish they wouldn’t do that. For the Bowfin sure, that’s a unique name, but you can say Chorisoneura parishi easier than that abomination of a common name. If someone is just learning a new species, the learning curve is about the same. The worst by far is simply reversing the scientific name for a common name (I see it all the time with moths). Absolutely no point in this redundancy. Use some imagination or a good descriptive name if the Latin name is a mouthful.


Yeah I think for that species it was mostly just done as a “yeah what would you even call this” thing for consistency lol, the small handful of people interested in a tiny, fairly plain looking Pseudophyllodromiid are going to call it Chorisoneura anyway. Theres been some neat “invented” names ive seen though. Personal fan of “Raindrop Roach” for Margattea nimbata, pleasant little asian roach in the same family with a bit of a raindroppy enough shape. (and “Sexy Legs Roach” is certainly a snappier name for the sleek red legs and black body of Ischnoptera deropeltiformis than “Dark Wood Cockroach”)

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“Bug people” often almost seem to get mad when the common name is anything but the translated binomial.

(Just to clarify, the authors of that paper proposed both ruddy bowfin and eyetail bowfin, not just the latter name. Whether these are the best possible names for the two post-split species is something I don’t think I’m qualified to assess, but as for the implied possibility of keeping unmodified bowfin for A. calva post-split…)

This isn’t a case where, say, a small population at the edge of the species’s range was carved off as its own thing, with the vast majority remaining Amia calva—the species was cut roughly down the middle of its distribution; in fact A. ocellicauda appears to have the considerably larger range of the two (and has roughly twice as many iNat observations as newly-restricted A. calva). In other words, the redefined Amia calva is a very different taxonomic concept from the pre-Brownstein et al. (2022) A. calva.

Given that:

  1. Amia calva sensu Brownstein et al. (2022) is very different in scope from A. calva in the traditional sense, with the scientific name A. calva now referring to not even half of what it used to;
  2. unmodified bowfin has, for well over a century, been widely used (among many other common names) across the combined range of A. calva and A. ocellicauda, not just in the southeast where the type locality of A. calva happens to be (in fact, skimming through old books, I stumbled across a reference to the name bowfin having originated in the Mississippi River valley, where the local Amia species post-split is A. ocellicauda); and
  3. post-split, the majority of bowfin observations on iNat don’t refer to A. calva

I don’t think it makes any more sense to keep unmodified bowfin for the southeasternmost bowfin populations just because those are the ones that happen to keep the old scientific name (which again is now referring to a very different, much narrower set of populations than it did in the past) than it would to transfer unmodified bowfin to A. ocellicauda because that’s the one with the larger range (and thus not unlikely the more widely observed and remarked-upon one in general, not just on iNat), as well as the one potentially including the first populations that the name was used for. There’s no guarantee that any given publication/reference/resource/etc. from the past couple centuries that discusses bowfin (at least any publication that isn’t, say, entirely Florida-specific) is referring exclusively to Amia populations treated under A. calva in the Brownstein et al. (2022) sense (and taking the disparity in range size and iNat observations as a proxy, it seems likely that the majority of existing publications on “bowfin Amia calva” refer at least in part to A. ocellicauda; just as one recent example, the individual that the bowfin genome was sequenced from came from a population in Louisiana [and all other bowfin sampled in that study came from populations in Louisiana and New York] now included in the resurrected A. ocellicauda).
tl;dr: keeping just plain bowfin as the default for post-split Amia calva on iNat—providing no indication that Amia calva is now being used in a much narrower sense than it was before late 2022—is a recipe for confusion.


At least they didn’t call A. calva the Bald-headed Bowfin. I can live with most common names even if I don’t particularly like them. They do provide a handle for people who won’t use the scientific name.


Since the older topic was already very long, and closed a while ago, I’m just going to let this one stand with cross-references between the two. I encourage everyone here to read the older topic before responding, as a lot of the same points may already have been made there.


And this is the difficulty with the insistence that one common name must belong to one and only one species: it contradicts common use of the name.

Next, I suppose we’ll have to come up with a different name for the beverage made form Coffea robusta because the name coffee sensu stricto means only the beverage made from Coffea arabica.

This will always be a gray area. First, we would have to agree on a meaning for “common name”. Is it a vernacular name in common usage or just a vernacular name? And what is the criteria for common usage? Scientific organizations sometimes gather together in “official” committees to coin common names–which at first would be simply vernacular names until they become established and used by other people in which case they would then be vernacular names in common usage. All common names started somewhere–and when they were first coined they were not in common usage.

iNaturalist didn’t do this, one person using iNaturalist did it. Anyone can add common names to species that lack them, and any curator can edit common names to species that already have them.


Realistically the common name will wind up defaulting to something like (Common) Bowfin, and Southeast Bowfin.

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“Please only add common names which already exist, and please follow the Guidelines for adding common names. Please do not make up common names.” ( It is a grey zone, as mentioned by @pfau_tarleton and hence the discussion on inventing common names on iNat reached some 200 posts and you can likely find thousands of posts on iNat forum on this topic.

I’d say that in this case a common name proposed in a research paper is deeply in the territory of “already exist” so to me it sounds as a straightforward case of implementing it into iNat.

Just a note: the topic is a rabbit hole :) The topic you mentioned ( was specifically addressing the role that iNat and iNat users should play in creating and disseminating common names to public. The iNat guidelines are that iNat users should not generate new common names but there is no general definition for an “existing common name” in iNat guidelines. So currently it all depends on iNat users and whether they want to add a name into the field “common name” and on curators and whether they want or have the capacity to revise the common names.

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Unless things have changed recently, only a curator can set a default common name. Curators act on behalf of iNat. Furthermore, the About page, adopted from Wikipedia, reinforces the default.

Indeed. But this is a topic that has been flogged - nay, hammered - to death on the iNat forum. An arbitrary selection of topics in which this subject figures prominently is at the bottom of this post. Some aspects of iNat policy are clearly stated; for example, it is not permitted to coin new common names on iNat. That, and a desire that common names reflect existing usage, even in a narrow context, emerge from a very extensive set of conversations.

It would reflect actual usage. The defaults currently displayed on iNat do not. One of the principle (if not the principle) functions of common names on iNat is to permit non-technical users to find things easily. Having people who thought they knew what they were looking for confronted by two brand new names is not a recipe for less confusion.

In parts of the Laurentian Great Lakes they are called dogfish by sport anglers and commercial fishers. They have other common names elsewhere. How does a suggestion in an academic article for a new name that is currently used by effectively nobody trump those names?

Say what? Respectfully, this is Humpty-Dumptyism. Proposed and existing are not synonyms. They’re not quite antonyms but one article proposing something does not equal that something’s existence by any meaningful standard. In the context of this discussion, common and vernacular are synonyms. These names are not vernacular. They “exist” now because iNat and Wikipedia have quoted the proposed names, not because anybody actually calls anything by them.

I have said this before in other threads but for the sake of clarity about where I sit with this, attempting standardization of common names is a fool’s errand. A Canada jay is a gray jay is a whiskeyjack, no amount of pontificating by self-appointed arbiters of linguistic purity will change that and which name applies depends on where you are and who you are talking to.

I propose that this is an instance of inventing common names through the backdoor and should at least be considered carefully. I freely acknowledge that the American Fisheries Society is probably going to offer an opinion on this and insist on some usage or another in their publications and that some people will see this as meaningful. I would also remind folks that other fisheries publications deviate enthusiastically from the AFS standard. My favourite example is the fish AFS calls brook trout and lake trout. To publish anything about them in Environmental Biology of Fishes you must refer to them as lake charr and brook charr. Yes, they (and others) spell it with two rs.

Maybe. It will still be dogfish on the dock in Prince Edward County.I don’t really care what anybody calls these things, although ruddy bowfin sounds more like an epithet than a name. I suppose I could make an argument for leaving Amia calva as bowfin being as how that’s how it’s going to play out on the water anyway, but what to do with eyetail bowfin? Beats me, especially since the putative ocellus is not a diagnostic character and anyway doesn’t look much like an eye on many fish.


In the jumping spiders we have “Longleg Dandy”, “Funny-face Peacock Spider”, and “The Murderer”!

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There’s a video somewhere purporting to show how some moth species got their common names. It starts out with two guys going back and forth naming things based on appearance and behaviour. After many hours of this they are semi-comatose and babbling. I had always wondered how Catocala neogama came to be called The Bride.

No problem. I like to exchange opinions and learn from others.
I’ll argue that it is not Humpty-Dumptyism. Firstly, it is my opinion (I tried to express this by “I’d say”) and I do non insist that this is the correct meaning of the words. Secondly, I think there is no definition of “common name” provided by iNat as we agreed in the last few comments so there is no objective way to decide whether your case is

iNat guidelines - and this is just my hypothesis - were likely written to limit the power that iNat users have to create common names. Substantial proportion of iNat users (at least those reading iNat forums on this topic) thinks that iNat users should be able to invent new common names (see e.g. the most liked posts in so without guidelines discouraging this activity, we would be likely seeing a lot of creativity in common names on iNat - for the better or worse. I think that taking a suggestion from a research paper does not fulfill what iNat calls “creating new names by iNat user”. I also think that if an iNat user invents a common name by herself/himself without reading or hearing it elsewhere - even a good one - it fulfills what iNat asks not to do. It does not matter whether the name is good or bad, the vague iNat guideline is in my eyes an effort to implement some control over common names without building additional control features and loading additional work on curators.


And even before, on the iNaturalist Google Group:

One thread in particular comes to mind, which involved a discussion of common names adopted from a newer (at the time) moth field guide and seems related to the current topic. A couple of quotes:

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).

In the case of the Peterson guides (both Covell’s and my own), we created names with the expectation that the book would launch the common name into more widespread and accepted usage, and respected pre-existing names when possible (even though I think some of them are dumb). A common name created for and appearing in the guide will be used by everyone using that guide; whereas a common name created for and only appearing on iNaturalist will be used by only a handful of people, most likely.

I actually had a conversation about creation of common names with one of the guys at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, because I had some reservations about being the one to do it for the book (what makes me more entitled than others?). His comments essentially boiled down to: someone has to do it eventually, and it usually falls to the people creating official reference material that will be widely used and cited (commercial field guides, NGO national checklists, government reference/info documents for species, and academic research papers).


This observation has not aged well, I think. In fact, I think it is fair to say that iNat’s reach in this regard is far beyond anything published by academics in Biology Letters could ever aspire to. Enshrining a default common name on iNat makes it real for a very large community, instantly.

The questions I asked as the OP were rhetorical. I think that the iNat rules around making up common names are logically flawed and out of step with how things work and the conversation around them is deeply conflicted.

So here’s a thought. Common/vernacular names are not historically the product of academic writing. They largely arise from the vernacular (i.e. they are social phenomena), with some exceptions such as the obsessive, unending reconstituting and reordering of names by a community of apparently anally-retentive control freaks who run ornithological organizations in the English-speaking world.

Common names reflect history, local knowledge, flights of fancy and outright weirdness that are part of the human condition. We have binomial nomenclature for keeping track of things; hopefully once we get done gene-sequencing everything it will settle down into some new normal that provides some kind of stable view of things. Getting stuffy about common names is not only anti-historical it is pointless.

I don’t have a beef with authors of field guides making up names. I just don’t like that there seems to be a notion in play at iNat that this is consistent in some way with a policy of squashing suggestions from ordinary folks on a social media platform with truly global reach. It is not. To my mind there are two options: officially make it iNat policy that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds and carry on or; acknowledge the social nature of vernacular naming and harness the power of a social network to slap some names on things that currently only sport Latinized binomial labels.

It seems to me that iNaturalist is perfectly placed to harness social processes and get some names on things with a higher probability of reflecting existing vernacular usage and perhaps a touch of whimsy than existing processes. I don’t suggest a free-for-all; more something like the existing Feature Request process where folks can propose and argue about it. My first suggestion would be to accept Mardi Gras Sharpshooter as a name, although some ornithologist will probably argue that French words shouldn’t be in English names so it will end up as the Fat Tuesday Sharpshooter but what the heck, that has its own charm.


A sharpshooter is an insect, so an entomologist.

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