The Case for Common Names (and Common Sense)
10 Sep, 2020
Excerpt from CORAL, September/October 2020
It was enough to send us scrambling for the field guides and our copy of Audubon’s Birds of America.
This morning’s breakfast reading happened to be our village weekly paper with an item on Red-bellied Woodpeckers becoming commonplace in Vermont. as their natural range shifts north from Southeastern US swamplands to the woods and backyards of northern New England and even Canada.
Not recalling the sight of any birds in our yard with scarlet abdomens, we turned to a field guide and discovered that the “Red-bellied” Woodpecker is seldom, if ever, seen with this coloration. The underside of this bird is bright white, at least in virtually all images of living specimens. Perhaps one birder in a hundred, the elite few with five-thousand-dollar Zeiss 95mm Spotting Scopes, has ever had a good look at the faint reddish blush of plumage on the lower abdomen of some specimens. Just who first attached the “Red-bellied” label to this innocent bird is unknown, but we found that even Audubon, circa 1830, used what is widely acknowledged to be a wrong-headed name in his epic tome.
We happen to be attuned to the topic of common names these days, having recently heard a few barbs about CORAL’s policy of capitalizing and generally taking seriously the common names of the fishes that appear in these pages. Purists, of course, would have us using the “Latin” or binomial scientific names only—in the woodpecker example erasing all confusion by just calling the bird Melanerpes carolinus.
In this issue we encounter a number of dartfishes that we have never kept, and a few that make only rare appearances in local aquarium shops. This, it turns out, is a small family of small reef fishes but one that is rich in common names. Take the Green Dartfish, Ptereleotris microlepis, a species that author Scott Michael observed on the Great Barrier Reef before keeping it in home aquarium back in Nebraska. We’ve worked with Scott for many years, and he consistently tries to bring order to the chaos of species such as these that bear a string of different common names.
This particular dartfish, for example, is variously known as the Blue Gudgeon (Fishbase), the Pearly Dartfish (Micronesia), the Green Goby (Maldives), and the Smallscale Hover-goby (Christmas Island). In Australia, ever a font of lively common names for fishes, it is called the Greeneye Dart Goby, the Pale Dartfish, and the Long-finned Gudgeon. In the UK, they refer to it as the Green Gudgeon Goby. Scott’s preference, as always, is to limit our mention of minor competing names and to publish the one or two most-used by reputable members of the aquarium trade. “Let’s not confuse things by calling them ‘gudgeons’ or ‘gobies’—which they are not,” said Scott. In his guide to the genus Ptereleotris, he narrows the common name choices for P. microlepis to Green Dartfish, which is a good descriptive fit, while also noting the Fine-scale Dartfish moniker, which reflects the scientific species name “microlepis” noting an accurate anatomical feature.
In real world, everyday life, most of us use the names of plants and animals that are variously referred to as “common,” “vernacular,” “trivial,” “colloquial,” or even “farmer’s” or “fisherman’s names.” Yes, there is a note of condescension here, and we have had the occasional taxonomy snob sniff at us with comments along the lines of: “Oh, you guys just love your common names. Are you not aware that it’s improper to capitalize them?”
Frowning upon the use of common names is nothing new. A French-Swiss botanist named Alphonse Louis Pierre Pyramus de Candolle in 1868 wrote: “Every friend of science ought to be opposed to the introduction into a modern language of names … that are not already there unless they are derived from a Latin botanical name that has undergone but a slight alteration.” Professeur de Candolle went on to say that “… the fabrication of names termed vulgar names, totally different from Latin ones” ought to be forbidden.
In fact, real field biologists and pre-eminent scientists use common names all the time, especially when they want to communicate effectively with people not steeped in taxonomy. Even the great Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, first published a compendium of all known Swedish native plants, listing first a common name, then a binomial scientific name. Today, the American Fisheries Society maintains a massive checklist of almost 4,000 fish species with Scientific Name and one official “Accepted Common Name” for every fish species.
Our unique world of home marine aquarium keeping exists at the intersection of science and “hobby” or avocation. This is, to lapse into the vernacular, our own wheelhouse, and we are very aware of the fact that people who read CORAL range from rank neophytes to lifelong expert amateur aquarists to marine trade professionals and world-class biologists and zoologists. Hence our use of both scientific and “trivial” names, as well as both metric and Imperial systems of measurement.
Regarding our policy of capitalizing common names, this is done to avoid confusion and to indicate that a particular species is being discussed. Thus, a Yellow Tang is Zebrasoma flavescens and no other fish. A number of other surgeonfishes can be described as “yellow tangs”, including juveniles of Acanthurus olivaceus, A. japonicus, and A. coeruleus.
We are, however, always open to comment, criticism, and suggestions. This is a conversation that deserves a full airing from time to time, and we will continue here. Your feedback is warmly invited. We will also post the results of a survey of Reader Preferences regarding species name usage in CORAL, as well as your druthers about the use of metric and English measurements.
Be forewarned, however: we believe in the old adage about the power of people who buy ink by the barrel. We will do our best to rogue out nonsense common names such as the poor “Red-bellied Woodpecker” and the Blue Gudgeon. What is a gudgeon, anyway?
September/October 2020, Volume 17.5