Just how does one coin a common name?

In the long-closed thread, The Right of a Fly to a Common Name, the question was asked,

Who has the right to create common names outside of iNaturalist and how is this right bestowed upon them?

And the answer was given,

However, if you want to invent a common name and try to have it meme its way into public consciousness and usage…go for it, but it would be the process of years, if not decades or generations, just to be sure it was actually accepted.

Well, this may be the case for a common name in the strict sense, i.e. a name in common use; however, in ornithology, at least, every newly-discovered bird seems to come with a “common” name as well as a scientific one. For instance, in this article, 10 New Birds Described in Biggest Avian Discovery in More Than a Century, they were only discovered and described last year, in 2020, but you will note that every one of them is referred to by a “common” name, such as Taliabu Grasshopper-Warbler and Peleng Leaf-Warbler. No way have those names been long-established in common use.

I know of at least one botanical publication, Madroño, in which new species descriptions often include a proposed common name, which the describer gets to assign.

So you’d think it would be a simple matter of using the name in a scientific publication. However, for insects, this does not seem to be accepted; entomological publications actively discourage using common names, especially for insects that do not already have an established one.

So my quandary is, if there is a certain species of fly, which I have consistently thought of as jester fly because of its motley colors and jaunty mannerisms (and that is how always I referred to it in my field journal since I did not know its taxon), how do I go about putting that name out there to see if it sticks?


I think there is no accepted way for an amateur to try to introduce a new common name outside of a scientific publication.


After a cursory Google search for “Jester fly” I was able to find there is at least one instance of this name already being used for a different species of fly, Graphomya maculata, which is a case-in-point for the reasons to avoid making and using common names.


If you see Hoplocheiloma notitipenne regularly then you might want to point it out to other people, and you probably don’t want to say Hoplocheiloma notitipenne every time you do that. If you spend much time with other naturalists and they also see the fly regularly and want to talk about it, they probably won’t want to say Hoplocheiloma notitipenne every time either. I think in a context like that, common names will form naturally. The length of this particular name makes it obvious.

The trouble is that Hoplocheiloma notitipenne is an obscure fly, it looks like it has only 2 observations so there’s barely even any people talking to each other about it on iNaturalist (until now).

The other issue is that Hoplocheiloma notitipenne is a member of a family with many other similar species, and possibly even more colourful species within the same genus. So then you have to justify why the name should apply to Hoplocheiloma notitipenne and not Hoplocheiloma maculosum or Ptilosphen viriolatus etc. (or an unrelated colourful fly as @jameskdouch mentioned).

In my opinion the best way to do that is to make a checklist or identification guide for the group for your area (ideally covering a broad enough area and range of species to be as useful as possible while also not overwhelming for you to make). It will draw attention to the group, it will make the group easier to talk about, it will give a reason for people to talk about it since now they can actually figure out how to identify them, and it shows that you’ve put some thought into why you called any one species a particular name.

In the end though, if it’s for a tiny fly that only people who care a lot about tiny insects will see, many of whom aren’t fond of common names, then it may be a lost cause. There’s not really a point in having a name for something nobody talks about. But amateur interest in insects has increased enough to have multiple published field guides for hover flies (including newly invented common names), so maybe we’ll move onto bee flies, robber flies, and eventually Caribbean stilt-legged flies.


This was answer by whom? It violates iNat guidelines.

Don’t do it please, it violates iNat guidelines.

Do you think you know all flies well enough to say that this one deserves the name “jester”? There are more than 100 000 described fly species, many more waiting to be described. If you now name your fly “jester fly”, do you think there are not approximately hundreds of other species better fitting this name? If I tomorrow observe a fly that is much more “jester” than the one you linked, shall I just remove your common name? Or give the same name to my fly or give it a name “Even More Jester Fly”? And what if I find such a more jester fly in one year when your name was already widely disseminated by iNat and people use it for hundreds of unrelated fly species with similar behavior and appearance?


What about different names? Is there one name left for flies that we have to use it? Why making problem out of nothing, there tons of names that would fit other species better, well, common names in history applied to many species at the time or often just refer to small detail that wouldn’t be seen by people as the best one, e.g. Orthetrum brunneum - стрекоза коричневая, where both common and latin names call it brown, when it’s a blue dragonfly, and it’s called after colour of youngs, does the name brown dragonfly really fits this species the best? No, but name exist anyway. So don’t worry about species being “not good enough” for the name, there’re so many other words to describe others.


I think the point of the answer given was precisely to avoid violating iNat guidelines - they’re saying that creating a new common name means you first have to get it widely accepted outside of iNat, and that takes years.

I’m all for creating common names for common species so that people begin to recognise them. I call myathropa florea ‘Batman fly’ (and I’m not the only one!) because the mark on its thorax looks like the Batman symbol, if people have a usable name for a thing they become more aware of it, and that’s good. If it’s very rare though there’s probably little point.

An alternative is to start using e.g. ‘jester flies’ to refer to (e.g.) a genus if there are many similar flies. Common names don’t need to abide by the rules of scientific names, they can be messy as @marina_gorbunova says - they don’t even need to be unique. What’s called ‘Common Garden X’ in one part of the world won’t be the same species as ‘Common Garden X’ in another part of the world. But if you’re trying to popularise your own name for something, it’s at least worth thinking about possible duplications - especially in the same geographical area.

Some authorities do create artificial ‘common names’ - I’m not a great fan because they often seem so… well… artificial… But perhaps they do make nature more accessible. And yes, it (rightly) violates iNat guidelines to add your own otherwise unknown name to the site. But we can call critters whatever we want, we can have our own names for them in families and friendship groups, and if those names break out and catch on - great!


I don’t think this is a good argument. By this logic, you’d have to investigate every species of fly and figure out which one is the most “jester” and then give it that name. But that type of process (aside from the fact that’s it’s impossible for pretty much any species) has never been how common names are given - they’ve most often been given through people deciding to use them organically. This means that the most “common” (abundant) species have common names and some of the most charismatic as well. The boring or obscure species often do not.

Also, you imply that @jasonhernandez74 is advocating for violating iNat’s guidelines on common name usage, but he is not doing this. He’s asking about how to introduce a name into the general conversation around a species, including published sources, that would lead to a valid common name that could be used on iNat. Please be sure to read and assess someone’s argument/views carefully before accusing them of violating the guidelines.


“no, this fly is more like a bard… oh wait, just a general entertainer… the other species in the genus is more like just a rock star in general… oh here’s a punk fly… this one’s emo… ooh a ska fly” well isn’t that more interesting than the alternative? :sweat_smile: Better yet try to name the most obscure fly after the most obscure music genre, why not.

If a band writes a song referring to an obscure fly by a certain name, and the song becomes popular, say gets regular radio play, does this mean the name then is an official name? Phish sings about cluster flies (Pollentia genus), does this give the name more weight? There are blackflies in Neko Case songs as well as various Canadian songs.


No, it doesn’t, because it wasn’t referring to iNaturalist. It was referring to the world at large, with many venues and platforms where a new name might be introduced.

See above.


It means people might start using that name and it becomes a bona fide common name.

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This sounds like a job for They Might Be Giants. A lot of good choices, but not sure how many other songs there are about Triops (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgIaSURBSDI)

Sorry for the tangent in advance…


Scientists don’t necessarily do this when selecting a scientific name, so why should the every-day person? Am I wrong in understanding that a common name is a name used by the general public? By definition, any community of people can call an organism whatever they want to call it. The general public has no rules by which to name things. Other than the guidelines for iNaturalist, where are the rules for coining common names? Are there even any published guidelines that anyone might chose to follow if they wished to do so? I think there are none. When a particular species having an accepted scientific name (and which has a widely used “common name”) is split by a taxonomist into two or more species, whose job is it to create common names for the new species? Some taxonomists offer up a suggestion within their manuscript. But probably, most don’t. Even if they do, there’s no rule that everyone has to accept that new “common” or vernacular name (people speaking other languages will create a name within their language).


Taxonomic traditions vary among specialized groups: the bird people want common names so that they can engage the public whereas insect people don’t really care about engaging the public (mostly because the public isn’t really interested in insects).

If we define “common names” as names commonly used by the general populace (the key being commonly used), then most species will never have a common name (unique to the species)–even if someone introduces a vernacular name to the world–because most species are never discussed among the general populace. If we define “common names” as any vernacular (non-Latin/non-scientific) name regardless of whether or not it is commonly used by the general populace–then a common name doesn’t have to be in common use and your mere mentioning the name for the first time in this forum means that the common name is in use.

But show me where “common name” is defined, as one of those two meanings? And show me a consensus among people as to which definition should be used.

Perhaps the word “common” doesn’t refer to it being “in common use” after all, but rather “used by the common folk”! This would equate “common name” with “vernacular name” (which is just a non-scientific name)–even one used by just one person on the planet.

[Edit added later:
For fun, I did a Google Scholar search to try to find the first usage of the phrase “common name”. In the 1700s, it was being used to refer to names of islands (and other places, perhaps) used by native peoples of the region. In a book published in 1799, “common name” is used to refer to non-scientific names of herbs in use by the local peoples: “Considering different shires in this nation give different names to one and the same herb, and that the common name which it bears in one country is not known in another, I shall take the pains to set down all the names that I know of each herb: pardon me for setting that name first which is most common to myself.”

From this historical context, one could argue that a common name can’t be invented by anyone but the local people who interact with the organism–and that a non-scientific name invented by someone other than a local person isn’t a common name but rather, a vernacular name which may or may not become a common name.


The answer is “by convincing people to use the name.” This is essentially a viral process, but it’s easier if (a) you’re already popular/respected among people who might care about such things (b) you invest in teaching/outreach/research among people who could be persuaded to care about such things (c) you convince a journalist it’s a useful moniker and THEY make it seem official.


See this discussion here - https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/common-names-invented-on-inat/27452/158. I really have no advice on the example you give, except to search the taxon records for any other common names. If none are found, knock yourself out and make one.

I don’t think this is universally true, I’ve seen otherwise. Some multiple bee experts prefer common name usage, when the names are valid/good ones (which should describe and distinguish species and/or location).

To coin a common name in general, first it’s a good thing that the fly species in question doesn’t already have one (if it did, it should require much more basis/discussion if changing it). I disagree that adding common names are prohibited. The key is to try to add them scientifically/taxonomically, which also will involve discussing/notifying the community and external experts outside of iNat. (and where we should at least hesitate more and ask more sources if we choose to depart from a name in-use elsewhere). I think it’s feasible that (if done correctly) iNat could add names for some of these flies. Note that it’s family is Stilt-legged Flies. So a given common name (if valid) could maybe be “(such and such) Stilt-legged Fly.” Finally, it sounds like Jester may have been used elsewhere, so I recommend a different name.

Some scientific names have been named after bands like Pink Floyd and Radiohead (https://www.popsci.com/new-species-honor-musicians/).


In addition, it’s already the case that existing non-iNat given common names sometimes double up and that you have several different species that share the same common name.

It’s not a big deal! This is why we have scientific names. This allows for specific species level accuracy for those who need that, and for the average person to use an easy to remember name that keeps the local species in mind, and that other local folks will know (or that is specific to the person themselves).

Where I work identification of species, plants in particular, is a big challenge and there aren’t great resources. Even if you do manage to accurately identify a species, often it doesn’t have an English common name, and it may have 3 or 4 recognized Vietnamese names, and even more local names. Often it’s easier for me to internally refer to it as something along the lines of “wetland tree with spines and lumpy bark”, or “trunk looks like black locust, but lives in wetlands”. That’s not really any different than making up a common name for it, even if it is more descriptive than most common names.

Common names are quick, mental shortcuts and all this recent kerfuffle over then is increasingly aggravating. It all very much feels like a sort of colonalist “I know better, everyone do it my way,” issue than anything else.

Personally, I wish this much attention was paid to the enormous number of species that have names (scientific and otherwise) that are just someone’s name. That, to me, is a far bigger and more egregious affront.


One does not simply coin a common name


And that’s also a good point. If the name for an obscure fly seems bad why not come up with a better one? I guess that too is just creating a name.

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