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Common name

A common name of a taxon or organism (also known as a vernacular name, English 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 so-called "common name" is not always one that is commonly used.[1]

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 memorise or 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, even where the same language is spoken in both places.[2]


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.[3]

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.[4] 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 R g-losta and plant no. 85 Ren-losta) the vernacular binomial system thus preceded his scientific binomial system.[5]

Linnaean authority William T. Stearn said:

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.[6] In Chapter 32, "Cetology", concerning the question of whether the whale is a fish or mammal, Melville wrote in about 1851:

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.[7]

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:[8]:

  • 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[8] 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. Such translation is sometimes confusingly inaccurate,[9] for example, gratiosus does not mean "gracile" and gracilis does not mean "graceful".[10][11]

The practice of coining common names has long been discouraged; de Candolle's Laws of Botanical Nomenclature, 1868,[12] the non-binding recommendations that form the basis of the modern (now binding) International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants contains the following:

Art. 68. Every friend of science ought to be opposed to the introduction into a modern language of names of plants that are not already there, unless they are derived from a Latin botanical name that has undergone but a slight alteration. ... ought the fabrication of names termed vulgar names, totally different from Latin ones, to be proscribed. The public to whom they are addressed derive no advantage from them, because they are novelties. Lindley's work, The Vegetable Kingdom, would have been better relished in England had not the author introduced into it so many new English names, that are to be found in no dictionary, and that do not preclude the necessity of learning with what Latin names they are synonymous. A tolerable idea may be given of the danger of too great a multiplicity of vulgar names, by imagining what geography would be, or, for instance, the Post-office administration, supposing every town had a totally different name in every language.

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 attempts to reconcile differences between widely separated regions, traditions and languages, by arbitrarily imposing nomenclature, sometimes have narrow perspectives and unfortunate outcomes. 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. This, in spite of the fact that 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 their two local species: Burhinus capensis is the (Cape dikkop or gewone dikkop ,[13] not to mention the presumably much older Zulu name umBangaqhwa ). Burhinus vermiculatus is the "water dikkop".[14][15]. The thick joints in question are not even in fact 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 clearly descriptive significance. The family Burhinidae has members that have various common names even in English, including Stone curlews , so the choice of the name thick-knees is not easy to defend, and yet the attempt to impose it continues.[16]

Lists that include common names

Lists of general interest

  • Plant by common name
  • Garden plants
  • Culinary herbs and spices
  • Poisonous plants
  • Plants in the Bible
  • Culinary vegetables
  • Useful plants

  • Birds by region
  • Mammals by region

Plants and animals
  • Invasive species

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,[2] 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[17]

A set of guidelines for the creation of English names for birds was published in The Auk in 1978.[18]

See also

  • Binomial nomenclature
  • Folk taxonomy
  • Category:Plant common names



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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