Sometimes common names are created by authorities on one particular subject, in an attempt to make it possible for members of the general public (including such interested parties as fishermen, farmers, etc.) to be able to refer to one particular species of organism without needing to be able to memorise or pronounce the Latinized scientific name. Creating an "official" list of common names can also be an attempt to standardize the use of common names, which can sometimes vary a great deal between one part of a country and another, as well as between one country and another country, even where the same language is spoken in both places.
- Use as part of folk taxonomy 1
- Common names and the binomial system 2
- Geographic range of use 3
- Constraints and problems 4
- Coining common names 5
Lists that include common names 6
- Lists of general interest 6.1
- Collective nouns 6.2
- Official lists 6.3
- See also 7
- References 8
- Bibliography 9
- External links 10
Use as part of folk taxonomy
A common name intrinsically plays a part in a classification of objects, typically an incomplete and informal classification, in which some names are well-defined and generally also have well-defined interrelationships; accordingly the ICZN has formal rules for biological nomenclature and convenes periodic international meetings to further that purpose.
Common names and the binomial system
The form of scientific names for organisms that is called binomial nomenclature is quite similar to the noun-adjective form of vernacular names or come on names that were used by prehistoric cultures. A collective name such as owl, was made more specific by the addition of an adjective such as screech. Linnaeus himself published a Flora of his homeland Sweden, Flora Svecica (1745), and in this he recorded the Swedish common names, region by region, as well as the scientific names. The Swedish common names were all binomials (e.g. plant no. 84 Råg-losta and plant no. 85 Ren-losta); the vernacular binomial system thus preceded his scientific binomial system.
Linnaean authority William T. Stearn said:
By the introduction of his binomial system of nomenclature Linnaeus gave plants and animals an essentially Latin nomenclature like vernacular nomenclature in style but linked to published, and hence relatively stable and verifiable, scientific concepts and thus suitable for international use.
Geographic range of use
The geographic range over which a particular common name is used varies; some common names have a very local application, while others are virtually universal within a particular language. Some such names even apply across ranges of languages; the word for cat, for instance, is easily recognizable in most Germanic and many Romance languages. Many vernacular names however, are restricted to a single country, and colloquial names to local districts.
Constraints and problems
Common names are used in the writings of both professionals and laymen. Lay people sometimes object to the use of scientific names over common names, but the use of scientific names can be defended, as it is in these remarks from a book on marine fish:
- Because, as already remarked, common names often have a very local distribution, we find that the same fish in a single area may have several common names.
- Because of ignorance of relevant biological facts among the lay public, a single species of fish might have several extra common names, say because individuals differ according to maturity, gender, or their natural surroundings.
- Formal taxonomic names imply biological relationships between similarly named creatures.
- Because of incidental events, contact with other languages, or simple confusion, common names in a given region change with time.
- In a book that lists over 1200 species of fishes more than half have no widely recognised common name; they either are too nondescript or too rarely seen to have earned any widely accepted common name.
- Conversely, a single common name often applies to multiple species of fishes. The lay public might simply not recognise or care about subtle differences in appearance between effectively unrelated species with very different biologies.
- Many species that are rare or lack economic importance don't have a common name.
Coining common names
In scientific binomial nomenclature, names commonly are derived from classical or modern Latin or Greek or Latinised forms of vernacular words or coinages; such names generally are difficult for laymen to learn, remember, and pronounce and so, in such books as field guides, biologists commonly publish lists of coined common names. Many examples of such common names simply are attempts to translate the Latinized name into English or some other vernacular. Such translation may be confusing in itself, or confusingly inaccurate, for example, gratiosus does not mean "gracile" and gracilis does not mean "graceful".
The practice of coining common names has long been discouraged; de Candolle's Laws of Botanical Nomenclature, 1868, the non-binding recommendations that form the basis of the modern (now binding) International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants contains the following:
Art. 68. Every friend of science ought to be opposed to the introduction into a modern language of names of plants that are not already there, unless they are derived from a Latin botanical name that has undergone but a slight alteration. ... ought the fabrication of names termed vulgar names, totally different from Latin ones, to be proscribed. The public to whom they are addressed derive no advantage from them, because they are novelties. Lindley's work, The Vegetable Kingdom, would have been better relished in England had not the author introduced into it so many new English names, that are to be found in no dictionary, and that do not preclude the necessity of learning with what Latin names they are synonymous. A tolerable idea may be given of the danger of too great a multiplicity of vulgar names, by imagining what geography would be, or, for instance, the Post-office administration, supposing every town had a totally different name in every language.
Various bodies, and the authors of many technical and semi-technical books, do not simply adapt existing common names for various organisms; they try to coin (and put into common use) comprehensive, useful, authoritative, and standardised lists of new names. The purpose typically is:
- to create names from scratch where no common names exist
- to impose a particular choice of name where there is more than one common name
- to improve existing common names
- to replace them with names that conform more to the relatedness of the organisms
Other attempts to reconcile differences between widely separated regions, traditions and languages, by arbitrarily imposing nomenclature, often reflect narrow perspectives and have unfortunate outcomes. For example, members of the genus Burhinus occur in Australia, Southern Africa, Eurasia, and South America. A recent trend in field manuals and bird lists is to use the name "thick-knee" for members of the genus. This, in spite of the fact that the majority of the species occur in non-English-speaking regions and have various common names, not always English. For example, "Dikkop" is the centuries-old South African vernacular name for their two local species: Burhinus capensis is the Cape dikkop (or "gewone dikkop", not to mention the presumably much older Zulu name "umBangaqhwa"); Burhinus vermiculatus is the "water dikkop". The thick joints in question are not even in fact the birds’ knees, but the intertarsal joints—in lay terms the ankles. Furthermore, not all species in the genus have “thick knees”, so the thickness of the "knees" of some species is not of clearly descriptive significance. The family Burhinidae has members that have various common names even in English, including “stone curlews”, so the choice of the name “thick-knees” is not easy to defend, but is a clear illustration of the hazards of facile coinage of terminology.
Lists that include common names
Lists of general interest
Some organizations have created official lists of common names, or guidelines for creating common names, hoping to standardize the use of common names.
For example, the Australian Fish Names List or AFNS was compiled through a process involving work by taxonomic and seafood industry experts, drafted using the CAAB (Codes for Australian Aquatic Biota) taxon management system of the
- Plant names
- Multilingual, Multiscript Plant Name Database
- The use of common names
- Chemical Names of Common Substances
- Plantas medicinales / Medicinal plants (database)
- Stearn, William T. (1959). "The Background of Linnaeus's Contributions to the Nomenclature and Methods of Systematic Biology". Systematic Zoology 8: 4–22.
- Kruckeberg, Arthur (1991). The Natural History of Puget Sound Country – Appendix I: The naming of plants and animals. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
- List of standardised Australian fish names – November 2004 Draft. CSIRO
- Brown, Lesley (1993). The New shorter Oxford English dictionary on historical principles. Oxford [Eng.]: Clarendon.
- Alan Weaving; Mike Picker; Griffiths, Charles Llewellyn (2003). Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. New Holland Publishers, Ltd.
- D. L. Hawksworth (2010). Terms Used in Bionomenclature: The Naming of Organisms and Plant Communities : Including Terms Used in Botanical, Cultivated Plant, Phylogenetic, Phytosociological, Prokaryote (bacteriological), Virus, and Zoological Nomenclature. GBIF. pp. 10–.
- Conklin, Harold C. 1980. Folk Classification: A Topically Arranged Bibliography of Contemporary and Background References through 1971. New Haven, CT: Yale University Department of Anthropology. ISBN 0-913516-02-3.
- Stearn 1959, p. 6, 9.
- Stearn 1959, pp. 9–10.
- Stearn 1959, p.10.
- Brickell, C.D., Baum, B.R., Hetterscheid, W.J.A., Leslie, A.C., McNeill. J., Trehane, P., Vrugtman, F., Wiersema, J.H. (eds.) 2004. International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. ed. 7. Acta Horticulturae 647 (Regnum Veg. 144)
- Heemstra, Phillip C.; Smith, Margaret (1999). Smith's Sea Fishes. Southern Book Publishers.
- Judd et al. (2008). Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach, Third Edition. Sinauer Associates, Inc. Sunderland, MA.
- Deeann Reeder; Wilson, Don W. (2005). Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Marchant, J.R.V. ; Charles Joseph F. (1952). Cassell's Latin dictionary. London: Cassell.
- Tucker, T. G. (1931). A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Latin. Halle (Saale): Max Niemeyer Verlag.
- de Candolle, A. (1868). Laws of Botanical Nomenclature adopted by the International Botanical Congress held at Paris in August 1867; together with an Historical Introduction and Commentary by Alphonse de Candolle, Translated from the French. translated by p. 36, 72
- Bosman, D. B.; Van der Merwe, I. W.; Hiemstra, L. W. (1984). Tweetalige Woordeboek Afrikaans-Engels. Tafelberg-uitgewers.
- Lockwood, Geoffrey; Roberts, Austin; Maclean, Gordon L.; Newman, Kenneth B. (1985). Robertsڃ birds of southern Africa. Cape Town: Trustees of the J. Voelcker Bird Book Fund.
- Roberts, Austin (2005). Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa. Trustees of J. Voelcker Bird Book Fund.
- Les Christidis; Walter Boles (January 2008). Systematics and Taxonomy of Australian Birds. Csiro Publishing. pp. 129–.
- Scott, Thomas (1996). Concise Encyclopedia Biology. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
- Overview: Australian Fish Names Standard. Seafood Services Australia
- Parkes K.C. (1978). "A guide to forming and capitalizing compound names of birds in English" (PDF).
A set of guidelines for the creation of English names for birds was published in The Auk in 1978. It gave rise to Birds of the World: Recommended English Names and its Spanish and French companions.