What’s in a name?

There’s always a lot of debate in the wildlife world about common names vs scientific names so I thought I’d try to sum up some of the issues and give you my thoughts. 

Why name anything?

Obviously, we give things names because we want to talk about them with other people – we need a common name that we both understand.  These vernacular or common names are usually quite regional, known only in that country and sometimes even restricted to particular regions of the country. Consider the number of regional common names for woodlice / pillbugs, just in England & Wales and now multiply that by all the countries of the world: 

From a post on X by JanFreedman: https://x.com/JanFreedman/status/905414534801879041

And because most people are not taxonomic specialists, these common names often apply to groups of species that just look similar, not a specific species. Specific common names are usually reserved for particularly large or distinctive species like birds, mammals & butterflies but they were also given to groups where it was vital to know the exact species to avoid being poisoned, such as flowering plants and many fungi. Where things just passed under most people’s radars, because they didn’t need to discuss them or they were only talked about by a few expert taxonomists, they just didn’t have a specific common name.

So, to summarise, common names exist where non-expert people want to talk commonly about something that’s important to them. They don’t often exist where something is only known to experts and needs expert training or special equipment to identify them. 

How did scientific names come into existence?

During The Englightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, when (mainly) gentleman scholars started to explore that natural world they started to examine species in ever more minute detail and so discovered more and more species that needed names. The scolarly language of the time was Latin and they described species in a longhand way but these “polynomial” names were quite cumbersome. An example might be “Arbutus caule erecto, foliis glabris serratis, baccis polyspermis“, which means “An Arbutus with upright stems, hairless, saw-toothed leaves, and many-seeded berries”. Not exactly very catchy and quite time consuming to write down each time.

Carl Linnaeus

Luckily though, in the 18th century Carl Linneaus, who had been exploring ways to categorise the natural world, devised a new “binomial” system which would drastically shorten the polynomials and provide a standard structure to the names. Gone was “Arbutus caule erecto, foliis glabris serratis, baccis polyspermis” and in came “Arbutus unedo” (the Irish Strawberry Tree). The first part of the name (called the genus or generic epithet) would allow related species to be grouped together and the second half (the species or specific epithet) would be a unique name for that species.

Linnaeus would first publish his binomial names in his book “Species Plantarum” (1753) but as different people began creating names it became obvious that, to avoid clashes where someone would choose the same name for a different thing, it was important to append the name of the first author and then people would know whose name it was. In our example, because Arbutus unedo was first used by Linnaeus we would write it as “Arbutus unedo Linnaeus”.

In the world of animal taxonomy we go further and add the year of first publication of that name, so we would get names like “Musca domestica Linnaeus, 1758″, though this is now going a bit further than Linnaeus did in his time. Linnaeus’ great work on the animal world was Systema Naturae, which had been first published in 1735 as a discussion on how to categorise the natural world, and was subsequently expanded upon until in the 10th edition it contained huge numbers of binomial species names. It’s this 10th edition that is now taken as the starting point of zoological binomial nomenclature. 

But don’t scientific names change all the time?

I keep hearing this and it’s true in some ways because, as we learn more about the natural world, we correct misinterpretations of the past and sometimes we have to move a species to a different genus or we find that two species that we thought were different are actually the same thing and so they get merged together.

I was interested to discover how often it happens and luckily when a species is moved to another genus we call it a new combination and we denote that by putting brackets around the author’s name. So it is possible to examine the list of UK species and see how many of them are still in their original combinations and which have moved genus. It turns out that, of the 74,323 species in my UK Species Inventory database with properly described scientific names, 41,645 (56%) species have been moved to a different genus and 32,678 (44%) species are in their original combinations. This means that nearly half the species on the UK list of animals, plants, fungi or microorganisms haven’t change their name since the time they were first given a name (some over 270 years ago), so I think it’s very unfair to brand scientific names as always changing. They change quite rarely and only when necessary to improve the accuracy of our understanding of the natural world.

So why not give everything a common name?

There has been a modern push to give everything a common name, to make the natural world “more accessible and less elitist” (their sentiments, not mine). This is often driven by publishers who want to sell more books and who are worried that scientific names alone would turn people off. But this has actually caused even more confusion because these new names are literally just made up on a whim, usually by one person, and they have no historic use nor any acceptance in the world of experts studying these groups.

As well-meaning as it might seem, we now have the ridiculous situation where novices come to experts for advice and ask “Is this a Wobbly-horned Parasite Fly?” and the expert has absolutely no idea what they are talking about. This actually happened to me the other day and I could see the fly was Triarthria setipennis (a species with no accepted common name because you need a microscope to identify it) but someone had clearly decided to give it an English name and now this name is being used by well-meaning but perhaps naive people who think I must know what it is because I’m the expert on this group! 

Not only are these new common names unnecessary and unwanted, it’s a complete myth that people find scientific names difficult to learn. In fact we are surrounded by the everyday use of scientific names, which nobody seems to have a problem with. This is particularly true in the gardening world where Crocus, Rhododendron, Cotoneaster, Geranium, Anemone (etc) are all just accepted and used without question. They are the scientific names but nobody asks what the common name of a Crocus is! 

That being said, I do think that where a situation obeys the basic rule of common names – that they are a species in common discussion by non-experts, then giving them a common name is fine. But I would rather just name the very rare examples where a fly or a wasp gets into the media (e.g. Asian Hornet, Ash Dieback, Oak Processionary moth) than to preemptively give everything an English name just for the sake of it. 


So, we can see that both common names and scientific names exist together and both have their pros & cons. Every living thing has a scientific name and that name is international, meaningful, stable and provides a means for researchers and experts to discuss them and understand each other regardless of their local languages. In contrast, common names are often very stable but also highly regional and primarily provide a way for ordinary, non-expert folk to discuss a subset of the species that are important to them in their everyday lives. There are no rules for common names and anyone can make one up and a single species might have multiple common names, which can be very confusing. 

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