Common name

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Common names (such as "red fox") are different across languages, whereas the scientific name does not change. Taxonomic Rank Graph.svg
Common names (such as "red fox") are different across languages, whereas the scientific name does not change.

In biology, a common name of a taxon or organism (also known as a vernacular name, English name, colloquial name, country name, popular name, or farmer's name) is a name that is based on the normal language of everyday life; and is often contrasted with the scientific name for the same organism, which is often based in Latin. A common name is sometimes frequently used, but that is not always the case. [1]


In chemistry, IUPAC defines a common name as one that, although it unambiguously defines a chemical, does not follow the current systematic naming convention, such as acetone, systematically 2-propanone, while a vernacular name describes one used in a lab, trade or industry that does not unambiguously describe a single chemical, such as copper sulfate, which may refer to either copper(I) sulfate or copper(II) sulfate. [2]

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 such interested parties as fishermen, farmers, etc.) to be able to refer to one particular species of organism without needing to be able to memorise or pronounce the scientific name. Creating an "official" list of 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 country, even where the same language is spoken in both places. [3]

Use as part of folk taxonomy

A common name intrinsically plays a part in a classification of objects, typically an incomplete and informal classification, in which some names are degenerate examples in that they are unique and lack reference to any other name, as is the case with say, ginkgo , okapi , and ratel . [4] Folk taxonomy, which is a classification of objects using common names, has no formal rules and need not be consistent or logical in its assignment of names, so that say, not all flies are called flies (for example Braulidae, the so-called "bee lice") and not every animal called a fly is indeed a fly (such as dragonflies and mayflies). [5] In contrast, scientific or biological nomenclature is a global system that attempts to denote particular organisms or taxa uniquely and definitively, on the assumption that such organisms or taxa are well-defined and generally also have well-defined interrelationships; [6] accordingly the ICZN has formal rules for biological nomenclature and convenes periodic international meetings to further that purpose. [7]

Common names and the binomial system

The form of scientific names for organisms, called binomial nomenclature, is superficially similar to the noun-adjective form of vernacular names or common names which were used by non-modern cultures. A collective name such as owl was made more precise by the addition of an adjective such as screech. [8] 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. 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. [9]

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. [10]

Geographic range of use

The geographic range over which a particularly 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, for instance, is easily recognizable in most Germanic and many Romance languages. Many vernacular names, however, are restricted to a single country and colloquial names to local districts. [11]

Some languages also have more than one common name for the same animal. For example, in Irish, there are many terms that are considered outdated but still well-known for their somewhat humorous and poetic descriptions of animals. [12]

Examples of Common Name Variations
Scientific nameEnglish nameIrish terms [12] [13]

w/ literal translations of the poetic terms

Vulpes vulpesRed foxMadra rua ("red dog") or sionnach
Lutra lutraOtterMadra uisce ("water dog") or dobharchú
Canis lupusWolfMac Tíre ("son of the land") or faolchú
Chiroptera (order)BatsSciathán leathair ("leather wing") or ialtóg

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 remarks from a book on marine fish: [14]

Coining common names

In scientific binomial nomenclature, names commonly are derived from classical or modern Latin or Greek or Latinised forms of vernacular words or coinages; such names generally are difficult for laymen to learn, remember, and pronounce and so, in such books as field guides, biologists commonly publish lists of coined common names. Many examples of such common names simply are attempts to translate the scientific name into English or some other vernacular. Such translation may be confusing in itself, or confusingly inaccurate, [16] for example, gratiosus does not mean "gracile" and gracilis does not mean "graceful". [17] [18]

The practice of coining common names has long been discouraged; de Candolle's Laws of Botanical Nomenclature, 1868, [19] 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 derives 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:

Other attempts to reconcile differences between widely separated regions, traditions, and languages, by arbitrarily imposing nomenclature, often reflect narrow perspectives and have 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", [20] not to mention the presumably much older Zulu name "umBangaqhwa"); Burhinus vermiculatus is the "water dikkop". [21] [22] 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", [23] so the choice of the name "thick-knees" is not easy to defend but is a clear illustration of the hazards of the facile coinage of terminology. [24]

Lists that include common names

Lists of general interest

Collective nouns

For collective nouns for various subjects, see a 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, [3] 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 [25]

The Entomological Society of America maintains a database of official common names of insects, and proposals for new entries must be submitted and reviewed by a formal committee before being added to the listing. [26]

Efforts to standardize English names for the amphibians and reptiles of North America (north of Mexico) began in the mid-1950s. [27] The dynamic nature of taxonomy necessitates periodical updates and changes in the nomenclature of both scientific and common names. The Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) published an updated list in 1978, [28] largely following the previous established examples, and subsequently published eight revised editions ending in 2017. [29] More recently the SSAR switched to an online version with a searchable database. [30] Standardized names for the amphibians and reptiles of Mexico in Spanish and English were first published in 1994, [31] with a revised and updated list published in 2008. [32]

A set of guidelines for the creation of English names for birds was published in The Auk in 1978. [33] It gave rise to Birds of the World: Recommended English Names and its Spanish and French companions.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language publish from time to time short dictionaries of common name in Hebrew for species that occur in Israel or surrounding countries e.g. for Reptilia in 1938, Osteichthyes in 2012, and Odonata in 2015.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Linnaean taxonomy</span> Rank based classification system for organisms

Linnaean taxonomy can mean either of two related concepts:

  1. The particular form of biological classification (taxonomy) set up by Carl Linnaeus, as set forth in his Systema Naturae (1735) and subsequent works. In the taxonomy of Linnaeus there are three kingdoms, divided into classes, and they, in turn, into lower ranks in a hierarchical order.
  2. A term for rank-based classification of organisms, in general. That is, taxonomy in the traditional sense of the word: rank-based scientific classification. This term is especially used as opposed to cladistic systematics, which groups organisms into clades. It is attributed to Linnaeus, although he neither invented the concept of ranked classification nor gave it its present form. In fact, it does not have an exact present form, as "Linnaean taxonomy" as such does not really exist: it is a collective (abstracting) term for what actually are several separate fields, which use similar approaches.

Genus is a taxonomic rank used in the biological classification of living and fossil organisms as well as viruses. In the hierarchy of biological classification, genus comes above species and below family. In binomial nomenclature, the genus name forms the first part of the binomial species name for each species within the genus.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Binomial nomenclature</span> System of identifying species of organisms using a two-part name

In taxonomy, binomial nomenclature, also called binary nomenclature, is a formal system of naming species of living things by giving each a name composed of two parts, both of which use Latin grammatical forms, although they can be based on words from other languages. Such a name is called a binomial name, a binomen, binominal name, or a scientific name; more informally it is also historically called a Latin name. In the ICZN, the system is also called binominal nomenclature, "binomi'N'al" with an "N" before the "al", which is not a typographic error, meaning "two-name naming system".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Herpetology</span> Study of amphibians and reptiles

Herpetology is a branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians and reptiles. Birds, which are cladistically included within Reptilia, are traditionally excluded here; the separate scientific study of birds is the subject of ornithology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Taxon</span> Grouping of biological populations

In biology, a taxon is a group of one or more populations of an organism or organisms seen by taxonomists to form a unit. Although neither is required, a taxon is usually known by a particular name and given a particular ranking, especially if and when it is accepted or becomes established. It is very common, however, for taxonomists to remain at odds over what belongs to a taxon and the criteria used for inclusion, especially in the context of rank-based ("Linnaean") nomenclature. If a taxon is given a formal scientific name, its use is then governed by one of the nomenclature codes specifying which scientific name is correct for a particular grouping.

Nomenclature is a system of names or terms, or the rules for forming these terms in a particular field of arts or sciences. The principles of naming vary from the relatively informal conventions of everyday speech to the internationally agreed principles, rules and recommendations that govern the formation and use of the specialist terminology used in scientific and any other disciplines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Integrated Taxonomic Information System</span> Authoritative taxonomic information on plants, animals, fungi, and microbes

The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) is an American partnership of federal agencies designed to provide consistent and reliable information on the taxonomy of biological species. ITIS was originally formed in 1996 as an interagency group within the US federal government, involving several US federal agencies, and has now become an international body, with Canadian and Mexican government agencies participating. The database draws from a large community of taxonomic experts. Primary content staff are housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and IT services are provided by a US Geological Survey facility in Denver. The primary focus of ITIS is North American species, but many biological groups exist worldwide and ITIS collaborates with other agencies to increase its global coverage.

<i>Systema Naturae</i> Major work by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus

Systema Naturae is one of the major works of the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and introduced the Linnaean taxonomy. Although the system, now known as binomial nomenclature, was partially developed by the Bauhin brothers, Gaspard and Johann, Linnaeus was first to use it consistently throughout his book. The first edition was published in 1735. The full title of the 10th edition (1758), which was the most important one, was Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis or translated: "System of nature through the three kingdoms of nature, according to classes, orders, genera and species, with characters, differences, synonyms, places".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Botanical name</span> Scientific name for a plant, alga or fungus

A botanical name is a formal scientific name conforming to the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) and, if it concerns a plant cultigen, the additional cultivar or Group epithets must conform to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). The code of nomenclature covers "all organisms traditionally treated as algae, fungi, or plants, whether fossil or non-fossil, including blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria), chytrids, oomycetes, slime moulds and photosynthetic protists with their taxonomically related non-photosynthetic groups ."

Botanical nomenclature is the formal, scientific naming of plants. It is related to, but distinct from taxonomy. Plant taxonomy is concerned with grouping and classifying plants; botanical nomenclature then provides names for the results of this process. The starting point for modern botanical nomenclature is Linnaeus' Species Plantarum of 1753. Botanical nomenclature is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), which replaces the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN). Fossil plants are also covered by the code of nomenclature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Evolutionary grade</span> Non-monophyletic grouping of organisms united by morphological or physiological characteristics

A grade is a taxon united by a level of morphological or physiological complexity. The term was coined by British biologist Julian Huxley, to contrast with clade, a strictly phylogenetic unit.

In zoological nomenclature, the specific name is the second part within the scientific name of a species. The first part of the name of a species is the name of the genus or the generic name. The rules and regulations governing the giving of a new species name are explained in the article species description. For example, the scientific name for humans is Homo sapiens, which is the species name, consisting of two names: Homo is the "generic name" and sapiens is the "specific name".

<i>Philosophia Botanica</i>

Philosophia Botanica was published by the Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) who greatly influenced the development of botanical taxonomy and systematics in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is "the first textbook of descriptive systematic botany and botanical Latin". It also contains Linnaeus's first published description of his binomial nomenclature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Taxonomic rank</span> Level in a taxonomic hierarchy

In biology, taxonomic rank is the relative level of a group of organisms in an ancestral or hereditary hierarchy. A common system of biological classification (taxonomy) consists of species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, and domain. While older approaches to taxonomic classification were phenomenological, forming groups on the basis of similarities in appearance, organic structure and behaviour, methods based on genetic analysis have opened the road to cladistics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cultivated plant taxonomy</span>

Cultivated plant taxonomy is the study of the theory and practice of the science that identifies, describes, classifies, and names cultigens—those plants whose origin or selection is primarily due to intentional human activity. Cultivated plant taxonomists do, however, work with all kinds of plants in cultivation.

A species description is a formal scientific description of a newly encountered species, usually in the form of a scientific paper. Its purpose is to give a clear description of a new species of organism and explain how it differs from species that have been described previously or are related. To be considered valid, a species description must follow guidelines established over time. Naming requires adherence to respective codes, for example: in zoology, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN); plants, the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN); viruses, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). The species description often contains photographs or other illustrations of type material along with a note on where they are deposited. The publication in which the species is described gives the new species a formal scientific name. Some 1.9 million species have been identified and described, out of some 8.7 million that may actually exist. Millions more have become extinct throughout the existence of life on Earth.

<i>Critica Botanica</i>

Critica Botanica was written by Swedish botanist, physician, zoologist and naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). The book was published in Germany when Linnaeus was 29 with a discursus by the botanist Johannes Browallius (1707–1755), bishop of Åbo. The first edition was published in July 1737 under the full title Critica botanica in qua nomina plantarum generica, specifica & variantia examini subjiciuntur, selectoria confirmantur, indigna rejiciuntur; simulque doctrina circa denominationem plantarum traditur. Seu Fundamentorum botanicorum pars IV Accedit Johannis Browallii De necessitate historiae naturalis discursus.

Botanical Latin is a technical language based on Neo-Latin, used for descriptions of botanical taxa. Until 2012, International Code of Botanical Nomenclature mandated Botanical Latin to be used for the descriptions of most new taxa. It is still the only language other than English accepted for descriptions. The names of organisms governed by the Code also have forms based on Latin.

The Wells and Wellington affair was a dispute about the publication of three papers in the Australian Journal of Herpetology in 1983 and 1985. The periodical was established in 1981 as a peer-reviewed scientific journal focusing on the study of amphibians and reptiles (herpetology). Its first two issues were published under the editorship of Richard W. Wells, a first-year biology student at Australia's University of New England. Wells then ceased communicating with the journal's editorial board for two years before suddenly publishing three papers without peer review in the journal in 1983 and 1985. Coauthored by himself and high school teacher Cliff Ross Wellington, the papers reorganized the taxonomy of all of Australia's and New Zealand's amphibians and reptiles and proposed over 700 changes to the binomial nomenclature of the region's herpetofauna.



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