Attempts to standardize the common names of species are deeply weird

Images: Canada jay, by Gavin Schaefer CC BY 2.0 via wikimedia.org.   Or maybe it’s a grey jay.  Or a whiskey jack.  Cougar, by Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikimedia.org.  Or maybe it’s a puma. Or a painter. Or a mountain lion.  Or a catamount.  Or a screamer.  Or…you get the idea.

It caught my eye, and the media’s, last month: an announcement that the American Ornithological Society would be changing the “official” name of the North American corvid Perisoreus canadensis from “Gray Jay” to “Canada Jay”.  The grey/Canada jay* is a wonderful bird – handsome, intelligent, and inquisitive – and “grey jay” sells it short, so I’m completely down with using “Canada jay”.  But: the notion that there’s any such thing as an “official” common name, or that the AOU gets to say what it is, is deeply weird.

To be fair, it’s not just the AOU.  The Entomological Society of America maintains an official common names list, too, and I’ve no doubt there are others (if you know of one, please tell us in the Replies).  And as long as you don’t think too carefully about it, you can see why people might try this. Common names, to a biologist, have three major flaws.  First, a single creature may bear many common names: the single New World wild cat pictured here has at least 40 different English names (cougar, puma, catamount, panther, painter, mountain screamer, mountain lion, and many more**).  Second, a single common name can refer to many creatures: a robin is an entirely different bird in Europe and North America; a fruit fly can be any of several thousand species in at least two fly families, and a daisy can be almost anything.  Third, many species lack any common name at all (probably, for example, the great majority of insects).  So wouldn’t it be nice if someone were in charge of the language, and could fix it so that each species had one and only one common name?  Then, the AOU and the ESA are thinking, we’d unambiguously know what we’re talking about when we use a common name.

But here’s the thing: these “official” common names lists are attempting the impossible, in aid of the unnecessary.

Impossible, because there’s no real sense in which these lists of “official” common names are actually official.  Nobody is in charge of the English language, least of all the AOU or the ESA.  These bodies can and do enforce use of their “official” common names in their own documents and in papers published in their own journals, but that’s all they can do.  Otherwise, common names are just like all other English words.  Each word is a convention between writers and readers (or speakers and listeners); and the “right” common name is the one that most writers and readers agree on.  These word conventions are arrived at informally, not by fiat; and they shift through time and space and depend on the age or background of the writer or reader, the degree of formality being used, and so on.  If that’s sometimes confusing, well, you can wring your hands over it, or gnash your teeth, but no official proclamation will change it.  That’s what makes a common name a common name.  That’s how human languages work.

Fortunately, if standardizing common names isn’t possible, it also isn’t necessary.  That’s because attempts at “official” common names are attempts to solve a problem that’s already been solved, perfectly satisfactorily, and has been for hundreds of years.  The problem of ambiguity in naming is precisely the reason for our system of Latin (or “scientific”) naming.  One name for each species? Check.  One species for each name?  Check.  A system of rules to ensure those first two things?  Check.  So: if you want to speak unambiguously about the Canada jay, it’s Perisoreus canadensis.  Cougar?  Puma concolor.  And of course the maintainers of “official” common names lists know this – because their own lists achieve nonambiguity only because they’re pinned directly to the Latin names.  Each “official” common name is (if it’s anything at all) a 1:1 synonym for a Latin name.  In other words, “official” common names add nothing to the naming system we already have.

I’m not arguing that, as scientists, we shouldn’t use common names.  There’s a very powerful use case for them: they’re often shorter and easier to read than the Latin names.  (Sometimes very much so.)  Even in a scientific paper, it’s often a kindness to the reader to use the Latin name once, and a common name thereafter.  But nothing about this requires any universal agreement on what the “official” common name is.  Any ambiguity is quickly and easily handled by a simple definition early in the paper, such as “Griseotyrannus aurantioatrocristatus (henceforth, the crowned slaty flycatcher, or CSFL)”, or “Griseotyrannus aurantioatrocristatus individuals (in this paper, just ‘flycatchers’)”, or some similar construction.  And if Smith’s paper uses “flycatcher” to mean Griseotyrannus aurantioatrocristatus, while Jones’s uses “flycatcher” to mean Empidonax minimus, no harm is done because the pinning to the Latin name in each paper resolves any confusion.  It’s exactly the same pinning the “official” common names use – just without the fantasy that we can somehow require that pinning to be universally1:1, or that doing so would help us somehow.

Look, I know this isn’t the issue that’s going to bring down modern science.  I’m not even sure it’s worth the 1,000 words I’ve just written about it.  But it’s just so obviously silly. Can we stop being silly?

 © Stephen Heard  July 10, 2018


*^Ornithologists typically insist on capitalizing common names, so Grey Jay, not grey jay. You can make a reasonable argument for doing this (treating common names as proper nouns), but you can make a reasonable argument for not bothering, too.  After all, what does it really accomplish?  But if you’d like to capitalize them in your head as you’re reading, be my guest.

**^Those are just its English names, though; it also has names in French and Spanish and Portuguese, Nuu-chah-nulth and Q’echi’ and Urarina, and dozens of other languages besides.

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9 thoughts on “Attempts to standardize the common names of species are deeply weird

  1. Zen Faulkes (@DoctorZen)

    For crayfish, there is a list of common names of all North American species in: Taylor CA, Schuster GA, Cooper JE, DiStefano RJ, Eversole AG, Hamr P, Hobbs HH, III, Robison HW, Skelton CE, Thoma RF. 2007. A reassessment of the conservation status of crayfishes of the United States and Canada after 10+ years of increased awareness. Fisheries 32(8): 372-389.
    It includes “common” names for I think every North American species then known (no blanks in the table!). And it includes “common” names for lots of obscure species, like cave-dwelling crayfish, which I doubt have ever been seen by enough people to warrant any name that could accurately be described as “common.”
    This list claims no official status, but being published in a major peer reviewed paper has kind of made it a “go to” reference when I include a plain English name for a crayfish species. So it’s part of the same mindset the post describes.
    I think there is a science communication benefit. It takes a time for people to become familiar with those Latin names. And they change! A whole bunch of crayfish that used to be Orconectes are no Faxonius. So if I’m giving a talk to non-specialists, saying “rusty crayfish” clears the path for understanding in a way that “Faxonius rusticus, previously Orconectes rusticus” doesn’t.

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  2. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

    I know you love those stories, so I’ll share it:
    In French, we used to call Moxostoma hubbsi ‘suceur cuivré’ (copper sucker?). Rumor has it that a minister did not like using that word. M. hubbsi is now called chevalier cuivré (copper knight)

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  3. sleather2012

    Mu former colleague, Mick Crawley, who used to do the grassland day on my field course when I was at Imperial College, refused to use common names opining that they had perfectly good binomial names and that one person’s cleavers was another person’s sticky willy!

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  4. Tony Diamond

    Since 2016, the ” AOU” has been the AOS (American Ornithological Society, from a merger between the old AOU and Cooper Ornithologists Society). And as the AOU they insisted on ” GrAy” not ” Grey” Jay, a further irritation to Canadians.
    Of course ” common” names look silly & unnecessary to entomologists and botanists, and no doubt other taxologists too. There are just too many species of their focal groups. But birds have two things making common names widely used: there are only a few hundred species in most countries, so even birder-brains have room for most of them; and unlike followers of those other taxa, most people using bird names are not biologists, so scientific names are daunting to an extent most biologists don’t appreciate.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for those corrections – I’ll edit the post. Not sure that I’m entirely buying your position that the AOS is clever but the ESA is silly, though 🙂 I don’t have any problem with non-biologists *using* the common names. What makes the AOS think it has the authority to rule on which common names people use? That is, I still think, deeply weird!

      Also: as a card-carrying pedant, I must point out my amusement that, as the result of the UNION of the AOU with the Cooper, they changed their name to DROP the term “union”…. Wow.

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  5. Margaret

    Not to mention that indigenous people around the world had names for these species before whatever empire imposed English, Spanish or other languages on them. In some countries (e.g New Zealand), we are (trying to) re-claiming the Māori names. So when we do use common names as scientists, we use the Māori name where possible. So fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa) becomes piwakawaka (much better alliteration too!)

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  6. Marco Mello

    Nice post, couldn’t agree more: “nobody is in charge of the English language”. Or the Portuguese language for that matter. Scientific names and common names serve different kinds of communication in different human cultures. I see the same awkwardness among bat biologists. Some bat research societies also produce “official common names lists”, allegedly to help scientists communicate with laypeople. Pure nonsense. If you want to talk about a species with a given audience, do your homework and find out how they call it locally. If there is no common name for the species, for instance, because people do not pay attention to that particular animal, that’s it. Just call it a general name, like “bat”. But don’t impose a made-up name on them.

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  7. cinnabarreflections

    I refer to a post I wrote for the Entomological Society of Canada (ESC) blog several years ago http://esc-sec.ca/2013/01/21/the-trouble-with-common-names/ to avoid re-stating my opinions! With respect to official names, the Western Forest Insect Work Conference (WFIWC – pronounced wiki-wif! [Does that give that organization exclusive rights to Wikis?]) has a common names committee (http://wfiwc.org/administration/cnamecom) as does the ESC http://esc-sec.ca/entomology-resources/common-names/. If I recall correctly, there was a move to generate common names for all insects in Canada, a venture that in my opinion would be both futile and of no use! Common names are just that – more or less colloquial names of commonly encountered organisms.

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