Names and naming

Dennis Paulson dpaulson at MIRRORS.UPS.EDU
Thu Jul 25 09:57:09 CDT 1996

Richard Jensen wrote:

"Hugh Wilson has a good point - scientific names are often less stable
than common names.  Despite the fact that Nuttall's oak is now
Quercus texana, displacing the former binomial Quercus nuttallii, it is
still know as Nuttall's oak!  I'm sure there are numerous other examples
in which common names have displayed greater stability than scientific names."

I had the good fortune (and burden) of coining common names for the 430
species of North American dragonflies, then was joined by a colleague, Sid
Dunkle, to revise them for the "tentative list."  The members of the
Dragonfly Society of the Americas were canvassed to send in alternative
suggestions, which were then voted on to come up with our final list.  I
have a printout of 100+ pages of e-mail messages that were exchanged
arguing (1) for and against the need for common names, and (2) the merits
of many of the individual names.

Certain people in the group were adamantly against applying common names to
dragonflies, and the depth of feelings was indicated by the level of
acrimony that we occasionally reached.  It was a good exercise for many of
us, as we had to put a lot more thinking into the value of common vs.
scientific names than we had ever done.  And we also had to think a lot
about what is appropriate for a coined common name.

One of the points that caused the most discussion was one of our naming
principles:  an attempt to show taxonomic relationships by the names, i.e.,
all members of the same genus had the same surname, often extending to
closely related genera.  We were then faced with the problem that generic
limits will change in the future, so, for example, 2 genera with different
surnames may be combined, and at that point, members of the same genus will
have different surnames.  Our final conclusion was that, once we had the
established names, we were not going to suggest changing them again for
taxonomic reasons.  But we agreed that that probably couldn't be a binding
decision, because future common-name committees, if they existed, would
make their own decisions.  I suspect the common, like the scientific, names
will always be in flux, as, of course, they're not really "common" any
more, but "carefully coined English" names.

In North American birds, at least, both common and scientific names have
been anything but stable, but I think the former have changed more than the
latter in recent years.  For more and more taxa, there are now common-name
committees that meet and (guess what) change names!

I came in in the middle of this discussion; I apologize if I've covered old

Dennis Paulson, Director                           phone 206-756-3798
Slater Museum of Natural History                 fax 206-756-3352
University of Puget Sound                       e-mail dpaulson at
Tacoma, WA 98416

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