ICBN too

Richard Jensen rjensen at SAINTMARYS.EDU
Mon Jul 16 09:04:35 CDT 2001

Barry Roth wrote:

> Is there really a
> "common-names-are-all-we-need-or-want" faction out
> there, significant enough that Taxacom members need to
> take note of it?

As Mary Barkworth points out, the answer is yes.  The lay public that I
often have experience with wants to know a "non-scientific" name to
apply to the plants they grow and find in their fields and woodlands.  I
see nothing wrong with this.  I have my students learn both the formal
taxonomic names as well as common names for all plants we study in lab
and in the field.

One of the primary goals of a classification is to serve as a means of
communication.  Yes, the use of scientific names should always be
encouraged, but there is nothing inherently wrong with using common
names - it is incumbent on us as taxonomists to make our non-taxonomist
colleagues aware of both the utility and the shortcomings of common
names.   One thing that tends to disenfranchise our "clients" is that
when scientific names change, the common names that have been in use for
so long are made obsolete or create confusion.  A classic example in my
favorite plants was the recognition that the type specimen of Nuttall's
oak (Q. nuttallii) belonged to a different species.  So, Quercus
nuttallii is now a synonym for the taxonomically correct Quercus
texana.  A suggested common name for this species is Texas red oak,
rather than Nuttall's oak. But, Texas red oak is a name that has been
used for at least three different species depending on the manuals
consulted.  Many of my colleagues in the International Oak Society are
bewildered by this because Nuttall's oak has such a long history of use
in trade circles (arboriculture, nurseries, lumber).  When I prepared
the treatment of the red and black oaks of North America for the Flora
North America, I adopted the taxonomically correct nomenclature
(treating Nuttall's oak as Quercus texana), but am now having second
thoughts about the wisdom of doing so.

In any case, I believe we do need to listen to our non-taxonomist
colleagues and the general public.  We want them to have an appreciation
of what we do, but we also must provide a system that is in some sense
"user-friendly" for those who are not primarily interested in the
evolutionary relationships among the plants they see and grow.

Richard J. Jensen              TEL: 219-284-4674
Department of Biology      FAX: 219-284-4716
Saint Mary's College         E-mail: rjensen at saintmarys.edu
Notre Dame, IN  46556     http://www.saintmarys.edu/~rjensen

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