Richard Jensen rjensen at SAINTMARYS.EDU
Mon Jul 16 09:29:15 CDT 2001

Ron Gatrelle wrote:

> Hello.  Common names only address the lowest taxonomic rank (at least in
> Lepidoptera). When we speak of "instability" at the family, subfamily,
> genus, subgenus levels it has no relevance to common names. I will have to
> use Lepidoptera examples as that is what I know. Heck, I'll even try the
> below post, which I know nothing about.

In the real world, commona names quite often do reflect hisher taxonomic
levels.  The common name Orchid refers to a very large family of flowering
plants, just as the common name hickory refers to a specific genus.
Unfortunately, the common name oak refers to two genera in Fagaceae and some
common names that include oak (e.g., silk oak) have nothing to do with oaks!
There are many instances in which common names refer to what taxonomists
recognize as monophyletic groups.

Of course someone could arbitrarily change the common names, but do you really
believe such a change would be accepted by either the scientific or lay
communities.  I guess I could start refering to white campion as "unpigmented
campion" or white oak as "rounded lobed oak", but I suspect everyone would
ignore my names and continue to use the long-accepted common names.  In fact,
my guess is that with our improving means of rapid and universal communication,
common names will become stabilized as well.  I suspect one reason that
Erythronium albidum has a great variety of common names (white trout lily,
white fawn lily, white dog-tooth violet, white speckled lily, white adder's
tongue) is that the great delays in communication prevented users of these
different common names from realizing they were talking about the same plant.
Similarly, had more rapid communication been possible when new plants were
being discovered, the name spice bush may not have been applied to two
different taxa.

By the way, spice bush (the one in the Lauraceae) is Lindera benzoin, not
Sassafras albidum.

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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