Can you change a species’ common name?

Content warning: Discusses common names based on ethnic and other slurs and on the names of people with potentially upsetting histories.

Other warning: considerably longer than usual. But, I think, also considerably more interesting than usual.

Is the common name of a species (cougar, daisy, blue mussel, Swainson’s thrush) an unalterable part of our language, or can we change one? (We might want to, sometimes – most obviously, when a name is offensive.) The answer is more complicated than you might think. Today, a little background to explain those complications, and then some analysis of three cases where organizations have attempted to drive changes in common names.

We share the Earth with millions of other species, and they’re both fascinating (all of them!) and directly important to us (many of them). That means we want to talk about those species (or write about them) – and we’ve evolved two parallel systems for doing that. Every species, when it’s scientifically described, gets a “Latin” or “scientific” name. And of course many species (but not all) also have common names – the ones routinely used by non-scientists. Puma concolor, for example, is the cougar (among other common names, and with names in other languages too, of course).

The two systems are different in many ways. Our system of scientific names is designed to provide a name for each species that’s precise, unambiguous, and global. Puma concolor means one species and only one, there are rules by which we can agree that’s the correct name for it, and it’s used (in scientific contexts) worldwide. Common names, on the other hand, are much looser in usage. Like all English words, they’re just conventions between speakers, with most speakers agreeing, more or less, on what is meant by a given word. There are no rules for word meanings – nobody is in charge of the English language. As a result, common names for a particular species often vary regionally and in time – consider cougar, puma, catamount, painter, mountain lion, and about another 35 or so English common names, any of which can refer to Puma concolor.

These differences between scientific and common names get especially interesting when someone suggests we should change a species’ name. Can you do that? As I’ve hinted, sometimes we might want to. Consider, for example, Adolf Hitler’s cave beetle, Anopthalmus hitleri. It’s a small, blind, and quite inoffensive beetle that occurs in a few Slovenian caves, but it got saddled with that name in 1937 courtesy of a Nazi-sympathetic amateur entomologist named Oskar Scheibel. (You can read the full story, and lots more, in Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider). Can we change either of A. hitleri’s names?

For the scientific name, the answer is (currently) “no”. Under the Codes* that govern nomenclature, a species’ correct name is the first one it was given – and for the beetle in question, that’s A. hitleri. There are committees that consider exceptions to this “principle of priority”, but the disagreeable** nature of an eponym is very clearly not allowed as a reason for such an exception. Unless and until the Codes are revised, we’re stuck with A. hitleri.***

For the common name, the question is much more interesting. Arguably, changing a common name is both much easier and much harder than changing a scientific one. Let me unpack that a little, and then we’ll consider three real attempts to change common names. (The cave beetle Scheibel named isn’t one of those, as there hasn’t yet been an organized attempt to change its name.)

Changing a common name is easy, one might argue, because there are no rules and no authorities to require preservation of the old name (as there are for scientific names). But one might argue just as persuasively that changing a common name is hard because there are no rules and no authorities to compel use of the new one. This is true, actually, of any English common noun. I could announce tomorrow that from now on, bread should be called flixnurb, and there’s no rule preventing that change – but would anyone go along?

But species’ common names aren’t quite the same as other English common nouns. That’s because there are organizations that develop rules codifying what they consider to be “official” common names. For example, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) maintains “official” common names for all North American birds; and the Entomological Society of America and the Entomological Society of Canada maintain databases of “official” common names for insects. In one sense, of course, an “official” common name is oxymoronic: by definition, common names are simply what people use, not what any authority says they are. These official common-names lists aren’t without influence, though. Consider the birds: the AOS requires use of its “official” common names in its own publications (including in papers in its journals), and other organizations follow its lead (the American Birding Association and eBird, for example). Usage might then spread through both professional ornithologists and amateur birders to the broader public. But: would that actually happen?

We can try to answer that question using text mining, because there are some real examples to work with. I’ll consider two examples from birds and one from insects. In 2000, the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU; a precursor to the AOS) changed its official common name for the sea duck Clangula hyemalis from “oldsquaw” to “long-tailed duck”, to remove the racist slur “squaw”. In 2020, the AOS changed “McCown’s longspur” to “thick-billed longspur” for Rhynchophanes mccownii (the species was named in 1851 for John McCown, an amateur ornithologist and U.S. Army officer who later served in the Confederate Army). Finally, in June 2021, the Entomological Society of America removed “gyspy moth” as an official common name for the moth Lymantria dispar, to remove the racist slur “gypsy” – and in March 2022 it adopted the new name “spongy moth” (jointly with the Entomological Society of Canada). I used a combination of Google Ngrams (for oldsquaw/long-tailed duck, which is old enough to have been captured in the Google Books corpus that Ngrams searches) and regular Google web searches (for the other two) to estimate usage of the alternative names before and after the name changes were announced. Detailed methods are in this footnote****, and I’ll explore some general issues with this kind of work (which is not quite as simple as it might seem at first) in a future post.

There is, so far, only mixed evidence for the effectiveness of “official” common-name changes in changing linguistic usage.

We begin with long-tailed duck, the oldest of the three name changes. A Google Ngrams search shows distinct trends in the use of the older and newer names (Figure 1A); note that occurrence frequencies for the common names are normalized by dividing by frequencies of the scientific name, Clangula hyemalis, as a way to correct for changes in interest in the species itself. Superficially, these trends may appear consistent with a strong effect of the AOU’s change in “official” common name: usage of the older name declines precipitously, and “long-tailed duck” increases, around the year 2000. The name change was officially published in July 2000, although news that it was likely to come was circulating as early as November 1999. However, books published in 2000 reflect linguistic usage not at the time of their publication, but instead when they were written or copyedited. For the most part, for books published in 2000, these steps would have been completed no later than mid-1999. Even books published in 2001 will mostly reflect usage pre-2000. In other words, the sharp decline in usage of the older name suggests a change in usage that largely precedes the AOU’s decision. The “official” name change, then, may not have provoked a shift in usage, but rather recognized and perhaps encouraged an ongoing shift to “long-tailed duck” (a name that had already been in use in Europe).

Figure 1. Time trends in usage of “long-tailed duck”, “thick-billed longspur”, and “spongy moth” compared with the names they are intended to replace. Data are from Google Books (Google Ngrams search, panel A) or regular Google web searches (panels B and C), and usage frequencies are expressed relative to usage for the scientific name of each species. For long-tailed duck, data points are based on single searches. For thick-billed longspur and spongy moth, data points are based on averages of 3 replicate searches, which are indicated as small vertical ticks. Gaps in the line for longspur indicate search periods with zero occurrences of the scientific name, and thus an undefined quotient for each common name. Vertical dotted lines indicate timing of name changes; for spongy moth, the left line denotes the deprecation of the older name and the right line the announcement of its replacement. Further methodological details in this footnote.****

A similar name-change attempt for Rhynchophanes mccownii (to thick-billed longspur) is much more recent, with the AOS decision announced in August 2020. This is too recent to detect changes in usage in the Google Books corpus, so instead I used regular Google web searches (by quarter, for 2002-2022). The data are much noisier, with relatively few “hits” early in the time series – possibly because this bird is much less widespread, and less charismatic, than the long-tailed duck. There are, nevertheless, apparent recent trends in usage of both the older and replacement names (Figure 1B). Much as for long-tailed duck, we see declining usage of the older name and increasing usage of “thick-billed longspur” around the time of the AOS decision; but at least some of the shift in usage appears to predate the decision. It’s unclear, then, how much of the shift is a result of the “official” decision, and how much would have happened anyway. The shift is, so far, incomplete: usage of “McCown’s longspur” remains (through the end of our dataset) close to that of “thick-billed longspur”. This may be partly a result of reporting on the name change itself, and partly a result of pages using both names to avoid confusion. However, there are still many pages using only the older name, suggesting substantial ignorance of (or resistance to) the name-change recommendation.

Finally, the newest name-change attempt is for the moth Lymantria dispar. This change happened in two steps, with the older name and its ethnic slur deprecated first, and the replacement name “spongy moth” announced nine months later (left and right dotted lines in Figure 1C). Usage of “spongy moth” shows a sharp increase, unsurprisingly; but much of the increase appears to occur before that name became official. This could reflect, at least in part, the “smearing” of usage back in time resulting from web page edits. However, because the increase seems to predate the new name’s official announcement by only a few quarters, it’s likely that search data are capturing public discussion of “spongy moth” as a possible replacement name. Further data collection would be needed to distinguish the two possibilities. Usage of the older name shows, so far, no sign of declining. While this may be in part because some web pages mention both the new and old common names to avoid confusion, pages using only the older name remain very common. It will take more time before we will know how successful the change to “spongy moth” has been.

Overall, then, it’s not clear whether, or when, top-down efforts to change common names will be effective. Of course, from search data alone it’s not possible to conclusively show that a name-change effort did cause a shift in usage (there’s a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy just begging to be committed). We can, though, ask whether there’s a pattern consistent with such an effect; and the lack of such a pattern is telling. None of the three cases show the pattern expected for a far-reaching shift in usage that was provoked by the “official” name change. This is not to entirely dismiss the role of the organizations, as it’s quite likely that the name-change efforts played some role; for example, the rise in usage of the names “spongy moth” and “thick-billed longspur” must have resulted from their new status as “official” common names, simply because their introduction as “official” was their first introduction. (Remember that Google web searches smear appearances of terms back in time, accounting for apparent earlier use.)

It’s probably best, then, to think of “official” common name changes as only one part of what it takes to change a name in broader use. It will be well worth repeating this analysis in a decade, when the thick-billed longspur and spongy moth cases have longer time series to analyze. Beyond that, there will surely be more attempts at name changes. For example, the advocacy group Bird Names for Birds is pressing for the replacement of all eponymous common names for birds – at least 155 species names in North America alone. This will be a fascinating linguistic experiment.

© Stephen Heard  November 22, 2022 

Thanks to Ben Dow for performing the many, many regular Google web searches.

Image: long-tailed duck, from John Gould, 1873, Birds of Great Britain, Volume 5. Public domain, via Biodiversity Heritage Library.

*^There are actually 5 separate nomenclatural Codes: one each for animals (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature 1999), wild plants, algae, and fungi (Turland et al. 2018), cultivated plants (International Society for Horticultural Sciences 2016); bacteria (Parker et al. 2019), and viruses (International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses 2021). These Codes are separate largely for historical reasons, but fortunately, they’re quite similar in their major features.

**^In the current context, “disagreeable” is about as much of an understatement as you’re ever likely to see here. Or anywhere.

***^I realize this paragraph is a bit cursory, and it oversimplifies the situation for scientific naming somewhat. Perhaps I’ll write an entire post to flesh it out… but this post is supposed to be about common names, and I should get to that.

****^For long-tailed duck, I performed a case-insensitive Google Ngrams search (Michel et al. 2010, Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books; Science  331:176-182) for “oldsquaw,long-tailed duck,Clangula hyemalis” on October 31, 2022. I set the corpus to English (2019), which searches all English-language books scanned by Google Books through 2019. I specified case-insensitive search, turned off smoothing, and limited results to publication dates1980-2019. Ngrams results are frequencies of the searched Ngram vs. the total of all Ngrams occurring in the corpus. For thick-billed longspur and spongy moth, I had Web searches conducted in October and November 2022 for each quarter (Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sept, and Oct-Dec) from January 2002 through September 2022. For each species there were three search strings: either “McCown’s longspur”, “thick-billed longspur”, and “Rhynchophanes mccownii”; or “gypsy moth”, “spongy moth”, and “Lymantria dispar”. Searches were case-insensitive, and each was conducted in triplicate by the same user on the same device. For regular Google web searches, the results are numbers of “hits” in the searched corpus. The search order (sequence in which quarters were searched) was randomized before each replicate search set. Replication was important because unlike Google n-grams queries, regular Google web searches are best thought of as estimates based on searching samples from a larger underlying corpus – and two users at the same time may find different numbers of hits, as may the same user searching at different times. (More about this in a future post.) Replicate searches can estimate sampling uncertainty, and comparing searches done by the same user reduces that uncertainty. Finally, in some cases web pages are edited after their posting, but their content is still found by a search delimited to the original posting date. This has the effect of “smearing” usage backwards in time, and accounts for occasional occurrences of a replacement name before any discussion of that replacement had occurred. (A conspicuous spike for “thick-billed longspur” in late 2008 results from extremely low occurrence of “Rhynchophanes mccownii” in that half year; there are still only a handful of occurrences of “thick-billed longspur”, likely examples of this smearing effect.) For each of the three species, I normalized search result counts or frequencies for the two common names by dividing by those for the scientific name. Because the latter did not change over the study period, its usage captures any changes in interest in the species overall, independent of its common name(s). For regular Google web searches (which return numbers of hits rather than their frequencies), this also corrects for the growth in the searched corpus over time. Because early data for thick-billed longspur were very noisy, for 2002-2017 I combined each year’s 1st and 2nd, and 3rd and 4th, quarters, to give two data points per year rather than four; for 2018-2022 I retained the division into quarters.


10 thoughts on “Can you change a species’ common name?

  1. Elizabeth Traver

    Why the removal of all eponymous names? Most folks probably dont know or care about who that named person was… what is the real purpose?


  2. Peter Apps

    Someone with the data mining skills and the time could look at attempts to change black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) to small spotted cat, and the southern African rhino species from black and white to hook-lipped and square-lipped respectively. These pre-date both the internet and political correctness, had no official backing, and almost no effect at all.


  3. Pavel Dodonov

    This made me also think whether we need “official” common names. On one hand, they may permit better communication between people (e.g. scientists and birdwatchers), which is probably a good thing. However, they may also lead to language homogenization and loss of regional, traditional and other names, as the official names are likely to be those used by the dominant community. So, names used by local communities may be seen as of less importance and as a curiosity or even a wrong name.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gretchen Rasch

    Here in New Zealand many birds now sport their original Maori names. Yellowhead is now mohua, the saddleback is tieke, New Zealand pigeon is called kereru and so on. As I remember, it used to start with a researcher using the name as often as possible and then got adopted by the Department of Conservation, but possibly now it’s Maori-driven?


  5. Jeremy Fox

    New example just dropped:

    Note: the linked tweet just happens to be the one that alerted me to this example. In linking to it, I’m not endorsing or criticizing Matthew Yglesias’ opinions regarding this proposed renaming. I’m not informed enough about this particular case to have an opinion one way or the other.

    Uninformed as I am, I do think it’s odd to rename monkeypox “mpox”, given that the m in mpox stands for “monkey”. I’m reminded of when Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC in an amusingly unsuccessful attempt to dissociate the company from the unhealthy word “fried”. But perhaps there is some logic to the “mpox” proposal of which I’m unaware, that makes it unanalogous to the KFC case.


  6. Armin Namayande

    You can for the organisms that initially had no assigned common names. For instance, species in the family Chironomidae never had assigned names and never will either, so any common name is probably arbitrary.
    Take Acalcarella nucus; I called it Amu Darya non-biting midge. I won’t bore you with details of why I chose this name and for what reason. Needless to say that someone else can call it Nucus non-biting midge or Nukus non-biting midge. Nukus is the name of a city in Uzbekistan in the vicinity of Amu Darya.


  7. Pingback: On text-mining using Google search tools | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  8. Chris Mebane

    Tried commenting two weeks ago but it went to WordPress ether. Maybe I’ll get inspired to try to quantify with Google search tools, buuut, sounds like it sucks people in.

    The change of Ptychocheilus from squawfish to pikeminnow is an example of a top-down common name change that seems to have stuck. Objections to the old name moved into the names committee of the American Fisheries Society in the 90s and the 1999 5th edition of ‘Common and scientific names of fishes from the United States, Canada, and Mexico’ listed pikeminnow. I seldom hear the old name anymore. The fact that the committees managed to come up with a really good new common name helped. What better name for a large predatory minnow with a huge, toothy gape and elongated pike-like body?
    AFS’s more recent (2010ish) effort to get people to capitalize common names of fishes, as is the convention with birds, seems a tougher go. A Black-capped Chickadee is a specific species, and not just any old chickadee with a black cap, for instance. The AFS is similarly pushing Long-nosed Gar to specify a species as opposed to gars with long noses, and such. I think it’s a losing effort, and even the convention with the birds will go to lower case over time. Too much trouble.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Chris! This is a great example because it seems to have been successful enough that I didn’t even think of it – I was unaware of the old name in this case. An interesting kind of apparency bias in this kind of work! (Mind you, I’m not a fish person; but then, I’m not a bird person either…)


  9. Pingback: Six months into “phased retirement”: how it’s going | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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