More on vernacular names

Paul van Rijckevorsel dipteryx at FREELER.NL
Sun Mar 6 10:47:54 CST 2005

From: Curtis Clark <jcclark-lists at EARTHLINK.NET>
> 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.

An interesting approach! However, the risk of losing memes by linking common
names to types is very limited. Just think of the unicorn (or Unicorn :-)).
Physical specimens of unicorn horns have been linked to /Monodon monoceros/:
this did not harm the meme a bit ...
* * *

> 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.

Yes, "Milk comes from a carton. The cartons come from the factory". However,
the ready acceptance of soy milk (at least as being a "milk") shows that the
danger is from losing contact with reality, rather than from connecting it
to types (of /Bos taurus/ resp /Glycine max/)?
* * *

> 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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