Common names and teaching

Thomas G. Lammers lammers at TFM.FMNH.ORG
Wed Jul 17 08:15:00 CDT 1996

I have several times taught a "local flora" class, aimed at undergrad
non-science majors, which had a dual emphasis: (1) field recognition of
major angiosperm families (grasses, legumes, comps, etc.), and (2) field
recognition of locally common/conspicuous/important species.  In the latter
case, I would always tell students both the binomial and any common names
I was aware of, both widespread and local.  However, on lab practical exams,
I never asked for common names, only binomials.  Students queried this, and
I replied that, given the nature of common names, I could NEVER say their
answer was wrong.  After pointing out Apios americana as Groundnut,
Wild Bean, and Potato-Bean (following Gray's Manual), a student contributed
that "down home, we call 'em Hooter-nuts".  Well, if I'd asked for the
plant's common name on an exam, and a student put "Hooter-nuts", could
I in good faith mark it wrong?  But if I accepted that answer, what then
of a student who would answer "Hog-peanut" (a common name for another
legume vine, Amphicarpaea bracteata) and protest that, "well, that's
what WE call 'em back home"?  By their very nature as part of spoken
vernacular, common names are extremely slippery.  Worth mentioning,
as a lesson in the value of scientific names if nothing else, and to
highlight plants' relationship to human culture, but not anything I want
to include on an examination.

Thomas G. Lammers
Assistant Curator                       lammers at
Field Museum of Natural History
Chicago IL 60605-2496 USA

        "The naming of things by their right name is the beginning
          of wisdom."

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