Which common name to use - the most common or taxonomically accurate?

This is something that has just come up for me and I’m interested to see what others think.

A species has two common names that could be set as the global default. There are no regional/local name considerations, and there is no authoritative list of common names to point to.

Name A is far more commonly used (by several orders of magnitude), and is the name used in essentially all reference works, other databases, etc. It is taxonomically inaccurate (in that the name is something like “Northern X”, but is not a member of the group that are called “true Xes”), and this has resulted in some confusion and identification issues in the past on iNat.

Name B is used rarely, to the point that there are only a single-digit number of examples online of someone using it organically. It is unlikely that anyone at all is coming to iNat and trying to find information about the species under name B. However, it is taxonomically accurate, and highlights an evolutionary relationship that is not otherwise obvious.

Which name should be the default that will show up on iNat pages: A or B? This is a case where there are no gray areas - using a standard based on either taxonomy or common use both give unambiguous answers, and there is no real compromise name possible.

Ive tried to keep this general to avoid biases, and I’m going to refrain from immediately giving my opinion. But you can read about the specific case and where I fall here: https://www.inaturalist.org/flags/397658


Option A.

The default common name should be what a starter or intermediate level naturalist would find if researching the species off the site. That’s by far the largest audience on the site. Having it be some ‘technically pure’ name that does not correlate to what users will find elsewhere does not help.


Agreed, this seems like a pretty clear cut case of Option A being the default.

We can’t expect all common names to correctly convey information about the evolutionary relationships of taxa (that seems to be the main issue with the use of Option A), especially since those relationships are often in flux or a matter of debate.


I definitely come down on the side of option A. Common names that are required to be (and remain) taxonomically accurate are not common names, they are non-Latinized scientific names. They are maintained exclusively by scientists, not inclusively by the “common folk” (meaning all of us). More on my opinions here.

That said, if there are particular taxonomic groups with well-established, rules-based English scientific names (or in other languages), and those taxonomists insist that those names should be the language default(s) on iNaturalist, that seems like something that could be discussed and, if agreed, added to the Curator Guide, so as to avoid “common name wars” in iNaturalist.


Option “A”, the common “common name”, not the uncommon “common name”.

Horse apples or Osage oranges aren’t Equine, Human, or Citrus, and are only loosely related to apples (at Order). “Madura food” wouldn’t be recognized by anyone, nor would calling it a fig help many know what was meant.


I may be surprising in this, but I generally would favor A - with rare exception deferring to B (pending overall standards for that group). We have a rather odd and rare case here, so hopefully there’s some food for thought across these discussions.

Standards often do vary by taxonomic group (and this is one that does have more established rules in place as well as stable taxonomic placement). Insects get a bit peculiar as there can be different standards between orders (for instance, Odonata and Lepidoptera tend to be more poetic while many wasps -especially social wasps-, certain flies, and certain beetles tend to be descriptive and taxonomic). This is much the case that Jim mentions above. Now by taxonomic, I mean using terms such as “paper wasp” throughout certain genera as opposed to an actual scientific name as part of common names - those can become problematic in certain groups and probably shouldn’t be over-used.

There is one example involving scientific names of a less stable hymenopteran group, Myzinum quinquecinctum, that was renamed from Five-banded Tiphiid Wasp to Five-banded Thynnid Wasp after re-evaluation of higher taxonomy, where usage has just now barely overtaken the earlier common name (by about a 10% margin after around 10 years).

Plants, from what I’ve seen, tend to have much less stable taxonomy. I’m always surprised to see how often scientific names are used in creating common names, especially with plants. Then there are terms that may seem to have connection to certain broader taxa but don’t really. Thus, there’s less taxonomic definition for terms like “apple” in the above usage (with historic usage being a much broader term for various fruits). I’d say they’re a different animal, but I’d expect immediate correction :-)

I’m actually able to think of a possible compromise or two with this particular question, as I do think the main issue as noted above is preventing “common name wars” (a nerdier, probably less exciting version of Star Wars). It’s noted in the above-linked discussion. Part of the issue here is that there’s a much lengthier history with these names than recorded on the Internet (as a rare sort of case at that, since this sort of issue normally wouldn’t require too much thought - no one seriously advocates for trash panda over raccoon, for example). Unlike other examples that are listed or could be listed, I’m unaware of one where there’s any real (much less adamant) push from the scientific community regarding common names (and organic use online is somewhere between 3-4 digits between renderings, plus non-digital print and non-text communication).


Definitely a long-standing pet peeve of mine! :grimacing::wink:

Although in some cases, the scientific name is actually based on an even earlier vernacular usage, so it’s not always the way it seems at first.


I would follow other huge and often used websites:

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bald-faced_hornet)
BugGuide (https://bugguide.net/node/view/2890)
Encyclopedia of Life (https://eol.org/pages/239818/names)

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Thanks @jonathan142, very helpful response.

It sounds like everybody agrees that the general rule should be to go with common use in most instances? I’m hoping we can figure out some kind of vague consensus as to when exceptions should be made.

Personally, some criteria I would use are below. If any one of these is true I would feel more comfortable with using an alternative name as the default:

  • The new name is not radically less commonly used than the old one (maybe at least 10 to 20% as common).
  • The old name is offensive
  • The old name is largely only used among academics, specialists and strong enthusiasts (or similarly, the total usage of any name is low)
  • The old name was created only recently
  • There is reason to think that usage is in the process of shifting broadly towards use of the new name among all segments of the population

Probably there are other reasonable cases.

But none of these apply to this particular case. @jonathan142 I’m wondering if you can come up with some sort of criteria for why this case should be an exception, that could not lead to tons of other commonly-used names in other groups being changed by specialists in opposition to common use?

That’s really my concern. It’s not such a huge deal to use a different name for this one species. It’s that I don’t see why this case is special. A significant fraction of common names could be changed to be more “accurate”. And I think this would be a real loss, and represents a misunderstanding of how human language works.

Birds are probably worse than many other groups, but I quickly went through my local list, and picked out names that, on a global basis, are defined based on physical characteristics/common use rather than taxonomy: Goose, Teal, Partridge, Pigeon, Dove, Gallinule, Vulture, Kite, Eagle, Hawk, Crow, Raven, Magpie, Martin, Thrush, Sparrow, Finch, Chat, Oriole, Blackbird, Warbler, Redstart, Tanager, Bunting and Grosbeak. Why should we not treat Hornet similarly? Many of these names do cause confusion regularly. I see iNat records assigned to the wrong kind of sparrow daily. It’s not really a big deal - indeed it can be a useful hook into talking about the different biology of different groups.

Ode names in particular are amazing, and whoever came up with some of them is a genius. Ebony Boghaunter, Sparkling Jewelwing, Halloween Pennant, Stygian Shadowdragon, Shadow Darner, Ruby Meadowhawk… these are great. I think the fantastic common names have played a role in the recent explosion of interest in odes.

I think a lot of the reason I feel so strongly about this particular case is that “Bald-faced Aerial Yellowjacket” is just such a terrible name. It reeks of something created by a taxonomist, not by someone trying to give names to the creatures they see around them. It is way too long, is overly technical (aerial makes me think of a swallow or dragonfly, not a wasp that forages in bushes), and is misleading (it isn’t yellow!). The “aerial” in particular is super unnecessary.

Blackjacket would be a great name if it didn’t already refer to another species. That’s a name I could see myself using. I am never ever going to say “Bald-faced Aerial Yellowjacket” when pointing out a wasp in the field. Especially when we already have a perfectly good name for the species that everyone understands.


Agreed. As I recall the odonate common names for North America were proposed by a small committee back in the 1990s and there was input from the ode community to revise the names list. What makes the names really work is that most are short, not more than a couple of words and as you say, evocative or poetic. The longer and clumsier a common name is, the less likely it will stick. Simplicity (and memorability) is better than taxonomic accuracy, in my opinion.


FYI, you can see the current common names list for North American odonates here:


Note that they didn’t try to cram the genus common name into the species common name. It’s not Twelve-spotted King Skimmer or Roseate Tropical King Skimmer, just Twelve-spotted Skimmer and Roseate Skimmer. Simple and memorable.


And also note that there are a few names in there that are used for a polyphyletic group: Bluet, Pennant, Glider, Dasher. It would be ridiculous to suggest that Wandering Glider should be renamed as “Wandering Rainpool-Glider” or Taiga Bluet as “Taiga Eurasian-Bluet”.


It does get applied to Dolichovespula maculata as well sometimes, so there’s a smaller pocket of entomologists who sometimes suggest bald-faced blackjacket (it’s really a shame that one never caught on, too, as it hits both fronts rather well).

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That doesn’t stop botanists! Try looking up “bluebell” in the iNat taxonomy…


Or ornithologists! At times, I feel like they were just trying to troll future generations by naming everything “bunting”.


that explains why they call party decorations bunting.


The use of common names can sometimes lead to confusion if used for different species, for example bog yellow eyed grass is xyris difformis in inaturalist and xyris platylepis in Bruce Sorrie’s field guide