Inventing common names redux

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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Yeah, but it’s the ornithologists who really get their shorts in a twist about common names. Especially the birding crowd, of which I count myself a member, alas.


some of your Latin, is Greek.


The Catocala names have had a long history of “relationship” names going back to their original descriptions. Most are named for relationship status or for female gods of various types. I think only the American Catocala got this treatment. Bride fits “neogama” which means newly wed.


A good example of the difficulty of a new common name to break through is the case of Lymantria dispar in the U.S. This has had the name “Gypsy Moth” for over 100 years. I don’t believe the name ever had a derogatory intent (I think it referred to the wandering nature of the larvae) but some people in the U.S. changed the name to “Spongy Moth” quite recently. Most entomologists still use it’s original common name because it is well entrenched and is probably as recognizable as the Latin name to entomologists and very well known to laypersons.

No need to discuss the moth name any further (to avoid off topic debates) but people are probably going to keep calling this a Bowfin for both species, and only a small group of ichthyologists will use the new common names. I think if the name was more catchy or clever it would catch on better? The green color of the breeding males is cool, and “ruddy bowfin” and “green bowfin” might have been better names. “Eyetail” is clunky.


We’ll keep bowfin for the nominate species, and the segregate shall be called Bowfin McBowface. :grin:


How do you think “things work” in the age of iNat? There has never been a platform of the size and influence of iNat that would have that high potential in generating and disseminating non-scientific names for organisms. Likely hundreds of common names were flagged and/or removed by curators because they were created by iNat users or it was not possible to find any reference to the names that would not originate circularly from iNat (no systematic analysis exist as far as I know, but you can see comments from curators here and there, I flagged perhaps few tens of insect common names not existing outside of iNat). And that is despite guidelines being in place asking users not to create names. Without such guidelines and with the power of iNat, we would have in my opinion a surge of crowd-sourced names that has not happened before. I don’t think it is clear now how this would help or damage the ability of non-researchers to communicate with each other and understand nature and biodiversity.

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I largely agree with @alesbucek. While not perfect, I think that the current guidelines about creation of common names on iNat are the best option I am aware of. Common names can be useful to communicate about taxa, but they can also lead to confusion if they are similar to names used for other species or poorly constructed.

As an example, the skinks of the genus Plestiodon (common name “Toothy Skinks”) are called “scorpions” by many people in the southern United States. I’ve had multiple conversations with local folks about these “scorpions” while doing lizard fieldwork, and we’ve all understood each other correctly. This common name would meet iNat’s requirement of being naturally in usage, but I haven’t added it. The reason is because it would introduce confusion (people searching for scorpions get lizards instead!?!?). Side note: the origin of this name is a belief that the blue tails of these skinks can be used to “sting” someone who picks them up.

I am sure that there are iNat users who would be qualified to generate quality common names for species that don’t have any. However, I think that allowing iNat users to invent new common names would open the floodgates to a large influx of common names of varying quality with no clear guidelines for distinguishing between useful common names and those that are just confusing or don’t improve users’ ability to connect with nature (iNat’s main goal). If user-generated names were allowed, what would a clear or easy to apply guideline be for which names are acceptable and which aren’t? Anyone could essentially say “I use this name with my friends”, and it would be “valid”.

Additionally, allowing names generated solely on iNat could lead to conflict and take much time and effort to moderate. We already have joke IDs and “battles” around taxon photos which can take up a large amount of curator time. Adding more time moderating a large volume of common names of mixed quality, some of which would likely inhibit the use of the site does not seem like a good idea. Curators would essentially have to use their own judgment (not a good guideline for widespread use), and this would lead to both conflict between users and less time for curating more important elements of iNat.

While the current system might preclude creation of some useful common names on iNat (a small [to my mind] benefit), it also avoids major costs in terms of poor quality common names that generate confusion, increased conflict between users, and demands on (volunteer) curator time. Given what I think would be these costs and benefits, I think the current system makes the most sense.


How does this

get represented as this

or this?

There is no suggestion that a free-for-all of naming would be a good idea. The idea that only academics or field guide authors are qualified to provide novel common names is both anti-historical and snobbish. The “eyetail bowfin” is a good example of the reality that academics are as fallible as anybody else when it comes to naming. The “eye” is not a diagnostic character, it is only more clearly defined on average in the proposed “eyetail bowfin” and its presence on many A. calva specimens would render this name more confusing, not less so. This is especially true insofar as the putative eye doesn’t always look like an eye in either species.

A name that bug/beetle/flower/weed/fungus/fish/tunicate/cnidarian/whatever forum would probably turn out to be both useful and fun. It would rechannel the arbitrary naming into an at least potentially useful process and away from the main site. I don’t see the downside.

As for the matter of scorpions

the world is a confused and confusing place. Users of iNat aren’t going to change that by refusing to record the diversity of naming conventions that exist. Better that it’s front and centre and properly discussed in the About tab than denied. People are going to continue to call vultures buzzards and lizards scorpions whatever we do here and it is better for iNat to explain why than to pretend it’s not an issue.