The Right of a Fly to a Common Name

The odonate specialists have made a concerted effort to provide English common names for species of dragonflies and damselflies because of the growing interest by the public in viewing and photographing these insects. Odonates are generally easily viewed, are colorful and distinctive, and can usually be identified without resorting to collection and examination under a scope. Thus, there is an actual desire by the nature-oriented public to have common names for them, which is not necessarily the case for many other insect groups.

The most recent reference for common names for many New World odonates is:

Paulson, Dennis. 2018. The Odonata of North America, including Mexico, Central America and the West Indies. Bulletin of American Odonatology12(4):35-46.

Some text from the Introduction in this article explains the author’s rationale and approach to coining common names:

"Over the past few decades I have been working on coining
English common names for all the odonate species
of Mexico, Central America and the West Indies that did
not already have them. This project came to its final stages
recently because I have been leading odonate-oriented
nature tours to Costa Rica and Panama, with most people
on the tours more interested in learning common than scientific

“The names, some changed on the spot because of feedback
from tour participants, have evolved considerably over that
period, but I finally felt the need to make the list official so
it could be used in publications, for conservation issues, on
people’s blogs and photo sites, etc. As did Sid Dunkle and I
for the US and Canadian species, I have made every effort
to give species descriptive names, which should make them
easiest to learn. A combination of descriptive and memorable
was always in our minds.”


If one must invent common names, I definitely favor that approach. That’s how the truly common names manage to enter and stay in common use.


You are talking about scientists. I am talking about the general public.
You are talking about inanimate matter. I am talking about living beings.
This is disconnected to the issues I’m raising.

Sure - which comment is this in reference to then ?

I think you’re referring to a comment by @dianastuder - this wasn’t a description / delineation I made.
I started this thread talking about the difference between common names for moths and flies.

Sorry, not sure what you are referring to here either.
I talked about names for hover flies and how that might affect our perception of biodiversity.
I’ve also talked about the idea of taxonomic bias and how common names may or may not impact this.
I haven’t said anything about “equal treatment” for all living organisms as far as I know?
Or am I misunderstanding you?

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Are these not your words?

Regarding the topic subject, the revised title of this topic is The Right of a Fly to a Common Name. The original title was The Right to the Invention of a Common Name, and closed with this question,

Rights - for those who name things, for things to be named or for anything else - are rather different than vague propositions for the sake of conversation. Or perhaps your title(s) were hyperbole?

You have presented taxonomic bias as a serious societal issue (in this and other topics) and used the language of rights to frame the discussion. You borrowed terminology from social theory to refer to marginalized taxa. The topic title has been changed in the course of the discussion to refer to the rights of a fly (although if I take your latest comments correctly it doesn’t actually reflect what you wanted discussed and you don’t want either title taken to heart). Marginalization is about inequality. Rights are about equal treatment. If equal treatment is not an objective maybe use different language.

The issue of taxonomic bias is real and problematic in various ways. It is a manifestation of the sort of thing that has been termed a wicked problem, a complex problem with no straightforward solutions. It isn’t going to be solved here by permitting the coining of common names or any other means.


YES… and it includes communities of short people. and those that are based in antarctica, and those that don’t eat meat. ANY community where communication takes part, and where the use of that name is not locked intrinsically to that community, ie someone is likely to enter that common name in iNat as a way of looking for that taxon. If it is two people on a hike, and they refer to a blue bug as “the blue fly”, then that is not likely to endure and reach outside the two of them, so is not in common usage. If you see it used there, and then again a month later discussed by another group of hikers, then it is evidently in common usage!

NO. Experts shouldn’t invent new names. The example above where an odonata book invents names is to me very much in the grey zone on this, because the intent of the book is to encourage discussion about the odonata, so I can see why they need to create the common names, but a similar book published in New Zealand last year didn’t do that, and it creates exactly the same kind of discussion. Many had common names, but some didn’t, and I talk about both groups of taxa with school kids in reference to how the distribution maps show only “expected distribution” on our East Coast of the North Island because historically there have not been a lot of field collectors up this way. Even the kids are fine with calling them by their binomials, if that is the name they are given to learn!

My position: Don’t make up names if at all possible, only record in iNat against the taxa the names that are evidently in actual common usage. I believe it aligns with iNat’s position, but again that is just my understanding!


Post 10 in the thread.

It’s not disconnected at all. Whether it is aphids or asteroids is not important. There are things that are studied by specialists. They get a unique name to differentiate them from other similar things. Whether that is a Linnean name, an ID in a galaxy catalog or whatever. Some portion of the public is also interested in them.

Some of them develop a critical mass of interest to drive getting a common name develop. Andromeda has a name because there is sufficient focus on it to produce one, millions of equally cool galaxies don’t.


I agree. It is the same for classical music catalogues, some music is known by a more descriptive name, others simply by the catalogue number. Some by the descriptive name but also by the catalogue number due to confusing and similar common names, the catalogue number annotated removes all doubt.

Another similarity is in nicknames for people. If it is in use by a small group of people, and unlikely to extend beyond that group of people, then it is not a common name and shouldn’t get recorded. I can recall a few nicknames for bosses I have worked for, not that I used those nicknames myself! Then you get high profile people that like to create nicknames for people (or other things) specifically aimed at attacking and denigrating them, when a perfectly valid and usable name exists


That’s exactly how I think of binominal/binomial nomenclature. It’s a catalogue index in which the name contains information about its position in the catalogue.

Actually, a lot of that sort of common naming has been caused by imperialism, whether consciously or unconsciously. Renaming common things can be used to suppress an indigenous language.

Colonizing cultures gave things common names in their own language. UK and US colonizers gave English common names to Hawaiian species because they spoke English and “discovered” every species they encountered. Many species that occur only on mainland Asia are now named “Japanese whatever” because the Japanese “discovered it” while they were occupying an area. Similar things happened everywhere that was colonized. Wildebeast, anyone?


Indeed! Motivation (conscious or subconscious) behind the action is often telling…

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Ok. Slight edit needed perhaps. This is disconnected to the issue which is of central importance to me on this thread. Which is not so much the existing process of name formation or the historical precedence around this - which your comment is focussed around if I understand you correctly. But rather more, human relationships with living beings and how common names might play a part in that.

For me, it makes sense that specialists in Syrphidae want to invent common names for species. I think this helps with the public awareness of Syrphidae that we need and I think its great to hear its happening in North America as well as the UK. Limiting this due to the historical precedence of humanity ignoring Syrphidae thus far seems to be a completely circular logic. Similarly though, limiting the creation of a public name to experts makes just as little sense to me… as to my mind, those with expertise may anyway not be the best arbiters of a public name. And in many locations and taxa, the experts simply don’t even exist. It would make a lot more sense to me personally if this was opened up to the public in some way, whatever shape that might take.

I get that this is against iNat policy.
I am not suggesting to anyone to break iNat policy.
I am not personally planning to break iNat policy.

It also seems abundantly clear that most other people on this thread see this issue very differently.
And I seem to be just repeating my same take on this over and over.
So, I’ll try and step out at this point.

It’s been interesting to learn more about the conventions of common names and the perspectives of everyone here in the community.
Thanks folks! :)

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I think people should be free to make up and publish whatever common names they desire in whatever ways they have available. You could make a personal blog introducing different fly species and how to identify them and what you think they should be called. Other people are free to use it as they see fit or ignore it.

I do think that a lack of common names could be a small barrier to interest for a group and that having common names will help encourage people who have a slight interest in the group. However, if people aren’t interested in the group at all then having common names probably won’t help them start being interested. People will probably get into a group for other reasons, and once enough people are interested in the group as a hobby then common names may start forming naturally through these processes.


Elsewhere in this thread you’ve mentioned ‘marginalized’ species and the idea of using names as a form of community outreach so I’m very surprised to read that you didn’t use that situation as a teaching opportunity. No one is going to get better at recognizing the value of Tachinids or learn about their common names (should they exist) if the person they encounter who appears knowledgeable about them is hiding that information by calling them something entirely different. ;)

As someone who is conspicuously foreign in my area I often have people come up to see what it is that I’m photographing and I approach those situations as an opportunity to share something about whatever it is that I’m photographing – from spiders to earwigs to flies. Rather than shift the focus to something more charismatic I prefer to encourage interest in species based on their own merit. Sometimes my audience loses interest and quickly wanders away but other times I end up with experiences like the man who listened to me talk about bagworm moths and then excitedly went back to his wife to share what he’d learned with her.


Sure. I have done in the past. And perhaps in this instance I could indeed have been more active in that regard. I just think its helpful when there are common language names to help facilitate this.

Like @bouteloua, I also make up names sometimes or describe creatures using common language terms, but this person couldn’t then go home and google it to find out more, if it isn’t a stored name. A recent time when I was photographing bee-flies for example I mentioned this term to a curious enquirer. When I met her again, she said she had looked them up and had been out looking for them herself since.

Its also not so easy to term in good common language off the top of your head sometimes. My first thought might have been parasitic flies for example for Tachinidae which could be off-putting. I’m glad @upupa-epops made the suggestion of bristle flies … which I can use from now on.

I also don’t actually know how to pronounce most scientific names myself correctly, including Tachinidae. ( ae is “ee” I recently read (?) ) .

I also think use of Latin is innately exclusive to the general public.
For me it has strong connotations of elitism and class in the UK.

Well, now for some reason I have the scene of the schoolmaster-like Roman guard correcting the grammar in the graffiti from Life of Brian in my head.

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Great film! Maybe relates in a way - its very connected to schooling here, as Latin is pretty exclusive to private schools in UK these days.

Interesting to see how Latin is compulsory in a fair few places still across Europe though. Didn´t realise that.,%2C%20OCR%2C%20SQA%20and%20WJEC.

Perhaps the connotation of class division and elitism for me may be unique to my UK background then I guess (?) …At least it´s the only country mentioned on the Wikipedia article where it notes a private school connection.

Yes, in the US it is also not a core requirement. I believe it may be considered part of a classical education at “boarding schools”, though.

That’s probably why my brain went from your comment to expensive schools to that scene.

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I fear that this would just invite endless variations of Boaty McBoatface and the like.


That would be the other extreme, yes.
There are also middle grounds though…


Single expert
Group of experts
Democratically elected committee
Experts in collaboration with poets
Democratically elected committee with input of group of poets
Single expert voting on names suggested by general public
Group of experts voting on names suggested by general public
Committee voting on names suggested by general public
Public voting on names created by committee of experts
Public voting on names created by poets
Public voting on names public creates (e.g. Boaty McBoatface )
Randomised selection from list of names created by public

…and everything else inbetween…

Bold = formats I’ve come across which already exist for the artificial invention of “common” names.

wildebeest (it has Dutch and Afrikaans roots)

In South Africa in the Western Cape, we have many plants called Cape whatever - and OURS has no taxonomic link to that ‘plant in the home country’.
But then the Cape gooseberry is a cape like Superman and comes from Peru.

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