More on vernacular names

Curtis Clark jcclark-lists at EARTHLINK.NET
Sat Mar 5 11:47:00 CST 2005

Several of you have commented on the stability of vernacular names, in
many cases even more than scientific names, and it occurred to me that
whereas scientific names are tied to specimens, vernacular names are
tied to memes. A clear example of this is the unicorn (or Unicorn :-).
There will never be a type specimen for unicorns, but the meme is

If I were an anthropologist, I might be concerned with attempts to tie
vernacular names to scientific names (e.g. the AOU) and hence to types,
because then the memes lose their names. Considering the importance of
naming in human cognition, there is then the possibility that the memes
themselves will be lost. Independent of their isolated value, memes are
a "cultural glue", and as direct knowledge of the natural world is less
and less available to many people, the memes are often all that is left.

An example from the area where I grew up: there are two common oaks,
blackjack oak and post oak (the latter named for its commonest use, in
the same way that Quercus robur might have been called man-of-war oak).
They were not difficult to distinguish, so that even your average
woodcutter or farmer knew the difference. Imagine a world in which
vernacular names were changed to match scientific names, hence were
always changing. The old-time farmers and woodcutters would use the old
names, but younger folk might just decide that it was too complicated to
tell them apart, and a part of cultural history would be lost to all but
the biologists.

Even among biologists, changes in scientific names can cause setbacks:
Since the publication of the Jepson Manual, it is not uncommon to hear
biologists say "Whatever they are calling Orthocarpus purpurascens now"
(Castilleja exserta). But they all know "purple owl's-clover", a
vernacular name that is suddenly more useful than it was before.

Curtis Clark        
Web Coordinator, Cal Poly Pomona                 +1 909 979 6371
Professor, Biological Sciences                   +1 909 869 4062

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