The Right of a Fly to a Common Name

I’m jealous of amateur lepidopterists who have such poetic names for the species they learn! I get the practicality of a shared name in Latin and have no issue with learning these…but I really enjoy many common names as well, and feel they can build more public awareness for less charismatic species.

Some existing common names just seem so dull …or even misplaced.
e.g. This fly for example, is ascribed the name Yellow Flat-footed Fly … which given its size and it’s vivid orange hue, doesn’t seem particularly relevant ( or memorable )

Following a conversation on the UK Diptera Facebook group where someone mentioned its similarity to an apricot, I thought a better name might be The Flying Apricot. Reading the iNaturalist threads connected to common names though, I understand this would be frowned upon without external precedence. But so many species, especially in Diptera…simply have no precedence anyway it seems.

What’s the logic of not suggesting new names, for the poorly-named?.. Or if there is no precedence, as for so many inverts… is it ok to add a name? If not, why not?
Who has the right to create common names outside of iNaturalist and how is this right bestowed upon them?


Who determines what is a good/bad name? In your example, obviously someone thought “Yellow Flat-footed Fly” was descriptive and moreover managed to convince others too, so that the name was accepted.
What criteria makes a name bad (barring something obviously problematic like racist overtones) ? “Mountain Chicken” is the common name for a species of frog: is it a bad name for not being descriptive, or a good one for being humorous and therefore engaging?

As for if it’s ok to just add a common name you make up to iNaturalist: no. There was a forum thread discussing why, I’ll see if I can find it.

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.


Here’s the thread I was thinking of:

But it turns out there are additional threads:


The suggestion that Yellow Flat-footed fly is a poor name at least, is noted by someone else in the link I gave. I agree - subjective though, of course.

An example from the UK, is the dipterist Steven Falk who has started to name all the hover flies. I presume he is to some extent, socially ascribed the right partly because…

  • he is someone of known expertise ( wrote books on hover flies )
  • he has photos on his Flickr account that everyone uses for identification of species…so he has the traffic to warrant them then becoming common use.

Given other threads questioning the notion of expertise though, I didn’t see his experience as sufficient in and of itself to assign that right. And given that iNaturalist arguably is (or at least might become) a serious resource for identification… I would say the assignment of common names here within the site to be an equally plausible pathway for a name to come into common usage.

I’ve read one or two of the threads connected to this. But the ones I saw were more about resolution of conflicting names - or yes, inappropriate names.


Nice - hadn’t seen these, looks like Bobby23 gives answers to some of the above questions … will have a read… :)


There is no authority to coining and creation of common names. The controlling variable is frequency of use generally. A name that is used often, becomes established for a species.

In terms of charismatic vs. descriptive names, there’s no real straight answer there. Don’t go nuts, and don’t name every ambiguous cryptic species out there. Be reasonable and ask yourself if that common name would actually have use. If it’s a group of specialized insects that no one but experts (who will use scientific name only) encounter, then it probably doesn’t require one in some cases.


(And my personal opinion is that deleting names that don’t have many “sources” is absurd and only dampens the spirit of things, but that’s just me.)


Ok interesting to hear. Have you suggested or added common names of your own making then?

I’m not sure rarity or regularity of use makes much sense as a boundary for the common naming of inverts though. It feels like every week or so I find something with less than 50 UK records since recording began. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert to find rare species, as the world of invertebrates is so poorly documented. You just need time, interest, and a good camera…

Also, encouraging people to keep their eyes peeled for Cratomus megacephalus seems destined for failure. Whereas telling people about the rare Big-headed Wasp you came across might have a bit more potential to inspire others to keep a look out as well. So …couldn’t one argue there’s some degree of chicken vs egg here anyhow?

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Mountain Chicken as a name for a frog… is a great name in my book. :smile:
Makes me curious to hear other examples of what people deem to be good or bad common names?

Also wondering if the names for moths are as poetic in other languages/countries…and if the comparatively thorough naming of this specific order is unique to UK or not?

Technically you could give a species whatever label you want on a personal website or Flickr or whatever, and then someone else could see that and use your name in a blog post or something, and then it could be added to iNat because there is now a source for it be using as a common name. There will be disagreements about the validity of the name though, especially if you artificially use that as a strategy to get names onto iNat.

I think field guides have been a big way for common names to be developed and come into use for moths, odes, etc. A field guide to hover flies of northeastern North America recently came out in which new common names were created for every species.


As far as plants go, common names vary considerably over times and locations. It gets cumbersome to keep track of at times- that’s why the scientific binomial names were invented. I enjoy paging through my old plant guides and looking at the list of ‘folknames’ for that plant. For example, A City Herbal from 1977 lists folknames of lamb’s-quarters: goosefoot, wild spinach, allgood, pigweed, dirtweed, midden myles, baconweed, fat hen, and frostbite. That’s of course, only a few of the names the plant has been known by over time, and does not include the many names in languages other than English. They’re charming names and I love them, but I’m also glad to have one dominant, widely-familiar name to use to discuss that plant. If people were making up new names for lamb’s-quarters all the time, we wouldn’t be able to discuss the plant without considerably more effort.

I imagine that whichever name appears as the ‘official’ common name on iNat was probably just determined by the first person that entered the observation for that taxa. (I’ve been mildly surprised several times by the iNat common name for plants that I know quite well as something else.)


This is a problem for identification sometimes. For example locally we call Cucurbita foetidissima “Coyote Melon” and even have a mnemonic that the fuzzy leaf is shaped like a coyote’s ear. But iNat calls Cucurbita palmata by that common name, causing a lot of users to missapply the ID C. palmata to their photos even though that species actually doesn’t occur in this county.


Yes - this kind of example was mentioned on the thread that @Star3 posted.
Many great points from different folks on those threads!

After reading some of it…I’m still not wholly sure I see a strong argument for the sourcing of names externally alone though, even if I respect that that might be iNats position atm. It just seems a bit arbitrary. At the very least… as @ahospers says on the thread, potentially… “iNaturalist can be a standard on its own…or be better than the standard”.

Yeah this is it. Ultimately, this is just another person not sooo different to myself… with a bit more in-depth knowledge on how to differentiate the species. I’m not sure I see why that specific knowledge of a bristle pattern might make them any better at creating a common name for a fly than anyone else. I don’t really see why I’m any less qualified at least (in this particular context).

Such great names! I love the plurality … and the way you can imagine them shifting in time, by location or use. Its nice just to see lists of all the names given and recognise them each as having a place. Its sad so many inverts don’t even have a single one on their list to vie for competition!

This may be an unpopular opinion, but in general I dislike coming up with common names where there isn’t actually one in use. Often they’re simply translations of the scientific name which may or may not be appropriate descriptors. Using just the scientific name is fine in that case IMO.

Likewise, someone went through and made up English common names for Hawaiian endemic plants that already have Hawaiian names, which are the names they’re commonly known as in English as well. So by default they’re labelled with these stilted and occasionally absurd names that nobody actually uses. I’ve tried to fix some of the more egregrious examples by adding geographic variants, but it’s a pain because there are three separate iNat areas you have to apply it to (State of Hawaii, Hawaiian Islands, and Hawaiian Archipelago).


Ok interesting. Yeah that sounds like someone’s been particularly unaware I guess… someone not from Hawaii presumably(?). I guess as I’ve found on other threads of late, the issues in iNaturalist really seem to vary depending on taxonomic group and location.

As a dipterist, I’ll chime in here. “Flat-footed Fly” may not mean much to the average naturalist, but it signifies a particular family of Diptera, the Platypezidae. The name itself derives from Greek and means “flat footed”, and it alludes to the modified tarsi common to males of some species. If you’re familiar with this information, the common name provides useful knowledge for understanding the affiliation of any “Flat-footed Fly” with this particular family. In that sense, it’s not just a random combination of words, but a way in which to identify this group without resorting to the Linnaean nomenclature. And by sticking a modifier to the front (i.e. “Yellow” in this case) one can make an even more meaningful common name at the species-level—most species in this family are quite darkly colored, so while this might not scream bright sunshiny yellow to you, it certainly is within the context of this family.

Now, regarding your suggested common name, “Flying Apricot”, while it is whimsical, it is not especially helpful for contextualizing what this fly is. Imagine if every species in this family had an equally esoteric name applied to it. Would that enable easy nomenclatural digestion, or would it become a chore to learn dozens or hundreds of unconnected names?

I’ve run into this issue in a field guide I’m currently writing for a group that has little in the way of established common names. A Russian researcher who published an obscure guide of his own in the 1980’s decided to coin names in much this same manner… whimsical, but uninformative in a taxonomic/phylogenetic sense. They never caught on because they were unwieldy. A common name has to be more than just descriptive… it needs to ideally work in much the same manner as Linnaean taxonomy.


Speaking as a plant taxonomist, I just can’t let this one go :wink:

This may be what taxonomists in some groups would like common names to be (and in some cases have already decreed them to be). But to me, it is exactly the opposite of what common names actually are, which are names commonly used by people in their native language.

We already have Linnaean taxonomy to convey taxonomic and phylogenetic information. Why should we expend the time and effort to construct and maintain parallel taxonomies in multiple other languages?

If Dipterologists were to someday agree that Platypezidae was not the correct name for that family, or needed to be lumped into a different family, would Flat-footed Flies suddenly no longer be called Flat-footed Flies? If so, that seems like an exercise that only taxonomists could contemplate. To me, a sunflower will always be a sunflower, and a Mountain Lion will always be a Mountain Lion, regardless of what us taxonomists decide to do with the names Helianthus and Puma concolor.

To me, the practical purpose of a common name in iNaturalist is to allow any user to look up a taxon using the name they know it by. If that name happens to have originated as someone’s whimsical flight of fancy, or as a literal translation of a Latin scientific name, or something in between, each serves the same practical purpose here. This does mean that common names can be messy, with several applying to the same taxon, or the same common name applying to different taxa. Taxonomists don’t like that kind of messiness – but that’s why we adopted Linnaean taxonomy, and all the rules around it, for scientific names. We don’t need more rules.

I do agree that any name first invented here on iNaturalist cannot serve the practical purpose stated above, since it would only work for the person inventing it. But if it is a name already in common use by many people, and just not yet recorded in print somewhere, then it can serve that practical purpose, and is not a new invention on iNaturalist.

Again, just my personal 2 cents here, not speaking in any way for iNaturalist.


You can find this perception back in common names in other languagues…


I can tell you two examples of bad common names for lichens:

  1. Tree moss (Pseudevernia furfuracea). Beginning naturalists either name any epiphytic moss by this name or disagree with the ID, putting the name of some morphologically similar lichen. When asked why, the answer is – but tree moss is a moss, not a lichen. Related Oakmoss (Evernia prunastri) is for some reason less problematic. Besides, it is a very well established common name in English.
  2. Maritime sunburst lichen (Xanthoria parietina), thankfully now changed into a more appropriate Common sunburst lichen. You cannot imagine, how many times I had to explain, that (at least in Europe) the lichen occurs throughout the subcontinent and has no specific connection to sea coasts.

Bad naming is rife amongst Ladybirds/Ladybugs (Coccinellidae). Numerous species have both common and scientific names that refer to the number of spots - for example Adalia decempunctata (10-spot Ladybird). But many ladybird species have highly variable colours and markings. So the “10-spot” ladybird can have anywhere between zero and fiften spots, with ten being only somewhat typical.

Understandably, this misleads people into thinking it’s possible to identify ladybirds by simply counting the spots - which results in literally thousands of misidentified observations on iNaturalist (and elsewhere).

Another good example is the widespread use of sexist common names amongst sexually dimorphic species. This causes a lot of problems with dragonflies and damselflies, where the common names almost always favour the males. I regularly enounter situations where a user posts an observation of a female, and then steadfastly refuses to accept an ID of, say, Enallagma cyathigerum (Common Blue Damselfy) because “it’s not even blue!”.