Common Names => Classification (utility) & species (unique identifiers)

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Mon Jul 16 21:00:48 CDT 2001

Jim Croft wrote:

> There is nothing that contributes to knowledge less than the
> invention of a
> common or vernacular name.  We have to accept that in many (most?) cases
> common names simply do not exist, simply because the organism is not
> common, or is otherwise uninteresting to common people, or there are so
> many species in the group that we just do not need to name them all.
> Deciding to call _Grammitis garrettii_, Garrett's Grammitis is a pure
> fabrication that contributes nothing.  Yet people have done this sort of
> thing for entire floras and cluttered the literature with a whole new
> useless suite of names.
> What is the point of coining a common name like for argument's sake,
> 'Dissected Oenotichia' for _Oenotrichia dissecta_ when literally a handful
> of people have ever seen it and even less are able to recognize
> it, or even
> care?
> Common or vernacular names are a real plant names and should be documented
> and referenced as far as we are able, but to deconstruct scientific names
> to make them, or to make them by any other means is not something that
> should be encouraged.  Maybe it works in birds and mammals where you can
> actually count the species, but in other groups it is a nuisance.

I have to say that I completely agree with Jim here (Sorry, Jim - I know how
much more fun the conversation is when we disagree...:)

Existing vernacular names have their value, for reasons already brought up
during this discussion; and I think it a worthwhile endeavor to document
those vernacular names in order to map out a "synonymy", of sorts, to match
up the scientific nomenclature with the vernacular nomenclature. I have no
quarrel with authors who list one or multiple pre-existing vernacular names
underneath the current, valid scientific name (indeed, the more vernacular
names listed from various regions and languages, the better, in my opinion).
However, like Jim, I am disheartened whenever I see an author of a popular
identification guide *invent* vernacular names to apply to all of the
obscure or cryptic species, for which no such names had previously existed
or been in use. Inevitably, an author of a subsequent popular identification
guide will not be aware of the previously invented vernacular name for those
obscure or cryptic species, so yet another set of (synonymous) vernacular
names are invented (this happens all too frequently with coral-reef fishes).

As Jim points out, most of the species without existing vernacular names
lack such names for the simple reason that few outside the world of science
ever have the need or desire to discuss them.  This probably also applies to
most of the as-yet undiscovered species awaiting scientific documentation in
the decades to come. I would hope that the nomenclature for these species
will remain uncluttered by "invented" vernacular names. Every so often,
however, newly discovered species will capture the imaginations of people
outside of academia; and in such cases there usually is a perceived need to
create a vernacular name for more broader, public consumption. A few years
ago I collected the first specimens of a striking new butterflyfish species
(with broad black and white bands on the body and fins) from deep reefs in
Hawaii. I received a telephone call from a local newspaper reporter who
wanted to write an article on the discovery.  He kept pressing me for the
name of the new fish, and I spent a good deal of time explaining to him the
basic process by which new species acquire their scientific names, and thus
why the fish would not have a proper name until after a formal description
had been published.  When the article came out the next day, the author
dutifully explained that the discovery was too new to have received its
formal scientific name, but then went on with: "you might call it a 'Zebra

I think it's in our best interests as taxonomists to foster an appreciation
on the part of the amateur naturalists, enthusiasts, and the public at large
for the value of our system(s) of scienttific nomenclature, so that a future
newspaper article would be more along the lines of " might call it
_Prognathodes_ sp. ..."


Richard L. Pyle
Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at
"The views expressed are the author's, and not necessarily those of Bishop

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