Common name

Common name

A common name of a taxon or organism (also known as a vernacular name, colloquial name, trivial name, trivial epithet, country name, popular name, or farmer's name) is a name in general use within a community; it is often contrasted with the scientific name for the same organism. A common name is not always commonly used.

Sometimes common names are created by authorities on one particular subject, in an attempt to make it possible for members of the general public (including interested parties such as fishermen, farmers etc.) to refer to a species of organism without needing to be able to pronounce the Latinized scientific name. Creating common names can also be an attempt to standardize the use of common names which can sometimes vary a great deal between one part of a country and another as well as between one country and another where the same language is spoken.


Use as part of folk taxonomy

Some common names form part of a classification of objects. Folk taxonomy, which is a classification of objects using common names, has no formal rules. In contrast, scientific or biological nomenclature is a global system that uniquely denotes particular organisms. Biological nomenclature involves formal rules and periodic international meetings, of the ICBN and the ICZN.[1]

Common names and the binomial system

The form of scientific names for organisms that we know as binomial nomenclature is derived from the noun-adjective form of vernacular names used by prehistoric cultures. A collective name such as owl, was made more specific by the addition of an adjective such as screech.[2] Linnaeus himself published a Flora of his homeland Sweden, Flora Svecica (1745), and in this he recorded the Swedish common names, region by region, as well as the scientific names — and the Swedish common names were all binomials (e.g. plant no. 84 Råg-losta and plant no. 85 Ren-losta) — the vernacular binomial system thus preceded his scientific binomial system.[3]

Linnaean authority William T. Stearn said:

By the introduction of his binomial system of nomenclature Linnaeus gave plants and animals an essentially Latin nomenclature like vernacular nomenclature in style but linked to published, and hence relatively stable and verifiable, scientific concepts and thus suitable for international use.[4]

There is a correspondence between many common names and systematic taxonomic names. Many laymen who have the experience and interest to name the creatures that they deal with, also have the powers of observation that equip them to recognise relevant differences and group organisms accordingly. Studies that compared the names applied to various plants by traditional Oriental herbalists with the classification of the same plants by modern botanists, also showed surprisingly close correspondence.

One example can be found in the book "The Whale", by Herman Melville.[5] In Chapter 32, "Cetology", concerning the question of whether the whale is a fish or mammal, Melville wrote in about 1851:

The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish... The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: "On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears..." I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug... Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me.

Geographic range of use

The geographic range over which a particular common name is used varies; some common names have a very local application, while others are virtually universal within a particular language. Some such names even apply across ranges of languages; the word for cat, is easily recognizable in most Germanic and many Romance languages. Vernacular names often restricted to one country. Colloquial names are often even more local in use.[6]

Constraints and problems

Common names are used in the writings of both professionals and laymen. Lay people sometimes object to the use of scientific names over common names, but the use of scientific names can be defended, as it is in these quotes from a book on marine fish:[7]:

  • Because, as already remarked, common names often have a very local distribution, we find that the same fish in a single area may have several common names.
  • Because of ignorance of relevant biological facts among the lay public, a single species of fish might have several extra common names, say because individuals differ according to maturity, gender, or their natural surroundings.
  • Formal taxonomic names imply biological relationships between similarly named creatures.
  • Because of incidental events, contact with other languages, or simple confusion, common names in a given region change with time.
  • In a book that lists over 1200 species of fishes[7] more than half have no widely recognised common name; they either are too nondescript or too rarely seen to have earned any widely accepted common name.
  • Conversely, a single common name often applies to multiple species of fishes. The lay public might simply not recognise or care about subtle differences in appearance between effectively unrelated species with very different biologies.

Coining common names

The latinized names used in scientific binomial nomenclature can be difficult for laymen to learn, remember, and pronounce, therefore in such books as field guides, biologists have coined and published lists of coined common names. On occasion, the common names are simply an attempt to translate the Latinized name into English. This translating is sometimes done inaccurately,[8] for example, gratiosus does not mean gracile.[9][10]

Various bodies, and the authors of many technical and semi-technical books, do not simply adapt existing common names for various organisms; they try to coin (and put into common use) comprehensive, useful, authoritative, and standardised lists of new names. The purpose typically is:

  • to create names from scratch where no common names exist
  • to impose a particular choice of name where there is more than one common name
  • to improve existing common names
  • to replace them with names that conform more to the relatedness of the organisms

Other projects reflect attempts to reconcile differences between widely separated regions, traditions and languages. For example, members of the genus Burhinus occur in Australia, Southern Africa, Eurasia, and South America. A recent trend in field manuals and bird lists is to use the name "thick-knee" for members of the genus. The majority of the species occur in non-English-speaking regions and have various common names, not always English. For example "Dikkop" is the centuries-old South African vernacular name for the two local species: Burhinus capensis (Cape dikkop or “gewone dikkop”, not to mention the presumably much older Zulu “umBangaqhwa”) and Burhinus vermiculatus (water dikkop).[11][12]. The thick joints in question are not the birds’ knees, but the intertarsal joints — in lay terms the ankles. Furthermore, not all species in the genus have “thick knees”, so the thickness of the "knees" of some species is not of clear biological significance. The family Burhinidae has members that have various common names even in English, including “Stone curlews”, so the choice of “thick-knees” is not easy to defend.[13]

Lists that include common names

Lists of general interest

Plants and animals

Collective nouns

For collective nouns for various subjects see list of collective nouns (e.g. a flock of sheep, pack of wolves)

Official lists

Some organizations have created official lists of common names, or guidelines for creating common names, hoping to standardize the use of common names.

For example, the Australian Fish Names List or AFNS was compiled through a process involving work by taxonomic and seafood industry experts, drafted using the CAAB (Codes for Australian Aquatic Biota) taxon management system of the CSIRO,[14] and including input through public and industry consultations by the Australian Fish Names Committee (AFNC). The AFNS has been an official Australian Standard since July 2007 and has existed in draft form (The Australian Fish Names List) since 2001. Seafood Services Australia (SSA) serve as the Secretariat for the AFNC. SSA is an accredited Standards Australia (Australia’s peak non-government standards development organisation) Standards Development[15]

A set of guidelines for the creation of English names for birds was published in The Auk in 1978.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Conklin, Harold C. 1980. Folk Classification: A Topically Arranged Bibliography of Contemporary and Background References through 1971. New Haven, CT: Yale University Department of Anthropology. ISBN 0-913516-02-3.
  2. ^ Stearn 1959, p. 6, 9.
  3. ^ Stearn 1959, pp. 9–10.
  4. ^ Stearn 1959, p.10.
  5. ^ Melville, Herman (2009). Moby-Dick: or, the Whale. City: Penguin Classics. ISBN 9780143105954. 
  6. ^ Brickell, C.D., Baum, B.R., Hetterscheid, W.J.A., Leslie, A.C., McNeill. J., Trehane, P., Vrugtman, F., Wiersema, J.H. (eds) 2004. International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. ed. 7. Acta Horticulturae 647 (Regnum Veg. 144)
  7. ^ a b Heemstra, Phillip C.; Smith, Margaret (1999). Smith's Sea Fishes. Southern Book Publishers. ISBN 1-86812-032-5. 
  8. ^ Deeann Reeder; Wilson, Don W. (2005). Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-8221-4. 
  9. ^ Marchant, J.R.V. ; Charles Joseph F. (1952). Cassell's Latin dictionary. London: Cassell. 
  10. ^ Tucker, T. G. (1931). A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Latin. Halle (Saale): Max Niemeyer Verlag. 
  11. ^ Lockwood, Geoffrey; Roberts, Austin; Maclean, Gordon L.; Newman, Kenneth B. (1985). Robertsڃ birds of southern Africa. Cape Town: Trustees of the J. Voelcker Bird Book Fund. ISBN 0-620-07681-X. 
  12. ^ Roberts, Austin (2005). Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa. Trustees of J. Voelcker Bird Book Fund. ISBN 0-620-34053-3. 
  13. ^ Scott, Thomas (1996). Concise Encyclopedia Biology. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-010661-2. 
  14. ^ List of standardised Australian fish names - November 2004 Draft. CSIRO
  15. ^ Overview: Australian Fish Names Standard. Seafood Services Australia
  16. ^ Parkes K.C. 1978. A guide to forming and capitalizing compound names of birds in English. The Auk 95: 324-326. [1]


Stearn, William T. 1959. "The Background of Linnaeus's Contributions to the Nomenclature and Methods of Systematic Biology". Systematic Zoology 8: 4–22.

External links

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