capitalizing vernacular [English] names

Frederick W. Schueler bckcdb at ISTAR.CA
Thu Mar 3 13:30:25 CST 2005

Piotr Naskrecki wrote:

> Since we are on the subject of vernacular names I would like to ask a somewhat related question regarding the proper spelling of vernacular names in English. Should vernacular names be capitalized, and if so, should all component words be capitalized or just the first one? For example, the vernacular name of Rhinostomus barbirostris could be spelled the Bearded Weevil, the Bearded weevil, or the bearded weevil. Which one of these is the correct one?

* weren't questions like that out-lawed by the land-mine treaty?

I'll say that the practice of lower-casing species is an assertion that
taxa are classes of objects that could be made up anywhere or anytime,
and are due no respect or identity. The English names of species are
capitalized proper nouns.  Capitalization is an assertion that species
are individuals with a particular historical origin, duration, and
extent, a critical acknowledgement of evolutionary history, and an
important advance in the philosophy of biology (Ghiselin 1974, Eldridge
1989). It is perhaps significant that in North American zoology the main
proponent of lower-casing names is the American Fisheries Society, with
exploitation embedded in its name, while the main proponent of
upper-casing species' names is the American Ornithologist's Union, the
first advocates of a group of Animals to band together for their taxon's
own sake.

This usage is the same as that for groups of people. One can become
anglophone or a social democrat by acquiring skills or beliefs, but one
can only become English or a New Democrat by birth or joining a
particular institution. I capitalize the English name of any taxon I
regard as monophyletic: The name of an historic individual is a proper
noun, proper nouns are capitalized, therefore the names of taxa are

QED as far as I can tell, but I know this view is wildly unpopular in
some circles.

           Bishops Mills Natural History Centre
Frederick W. Schueler, Aleta Karstad, Jennifer Helene Schueler
      RR#2 Bishops Mills, Ontario, Canada K0G 1T0
   on the Smiths Falls Limestone Plain 44* 52'N 75* 42'W
     (613)258-3107 <bckcdb at>
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