In defence of common names

In our Dipteran discussions on Tuesday last week, the idea of doing away with all insect common names was mooted. While this may have had some support from MSc colleagues in the room, I think the majority were probably with me in internally screaming “NOOOOOOOO!”.

Let’s be frank from the start: yes, our good old Anglicised common names are mostly easier to remember than scientific names, unless you’re a fluent Greek or Latin speaker. But that’s not why I’m here to stick up for the commoner.

Arescon_(fairyfly,_Thailand)

It’s well worth first acknowledging that there are problems with common names. Many are seemingly endless variations on a pretty loose theme (see the myriad ground beetles or hoverflies), and they can be different at national and even local level, de-standardising what is an internationally-agreed nomenclature and even muddying the waters of the body of research on given species.

But it’s not like the waters aren’t muddy enough in the first place. It’s arguable that things haven’t changed that much since 1942, when the Journal of Economic Entomology published an editorial stating:

With the scientific names of insects in perpetual chaos, due to the application of the law of priority, the splitting of species and generic concepts, and the endless shuffling of species from one genus to another, common names have come to have much more significance and importance than formerly.”

Common names have a tendency to cut through the noisy clanging of taxonomic debates – but they can do more than that: evoke, romanticise, or simply tell it like it is. On the latter, common names can tell you what an insect feeds on (pollen beetle, currant aphid, fungus gnat, dog tick), give you a crystal clear idea what an insect looks like (scorpionfly, giraffe weevil, orchid mantis, violin beetle), and let you know where it likes to hang out (larder beetle, house fly, museum beetle, bedbug).

Ocypus_olens_-_Devil's_coach-horse_beetle_(Cocktail_beetle)_-_Късокрил_бръмбар_-_Schwarzer_Moderkäfer_(22007628019)

Devil’s coach horse beetle – Ocypus olens (Wikimedia Commons)

They can also simply bring a bit of fun to what can seem to outsiders like a dry discipline. Science is not forever vanquished by the simple admission that talk of fairyflies, ugly nest caterpillar moths, assassin bugs, beautiful demoiselle darters and bombardier beetles makes the world a slightly lighter, more wonder-filled place.

Common names can even reveal a bit about our culture. Why on earth shouldn’t Britain, a country steeped in existential angst and the occult, have brought its language to bear on the death’s head hawk moth, devil’s coach horse and deathwatch beetles?

As if to prove the joy of an apt common name, when Tuesday turned to Wednesday and we were introduced to the Lepidoptera via a photo of the Picasso moth, there was a notable instant improvement in the mood of the room, previously somewhat tense ahead of the afternoon’s assessed practical.

The power to evoke should not be underestimated in the communication of science. From a personal perspective, a life-long love of beetles would have been far less likely sparked by Lucanus cervus than stag beetle. The public are not a bunch to be sneered at for their failure to appreciate scientific correctness – and what’s more, need to be brought along as the pivotal role of insects in supporting human life becomes ever clearer.

Picasso moth M Greeshma

Picasso moth – Baorissa hieroglyphica (photo: M. Greeshma)

I agree wholeheartedly with Michael J. Samways, who in his 2005 book Insect Diversity Conservation urged experts not to shy away from charismatic ‘icon’ species and to use their common names, “so as to give the conservation mission warmth and familiarity”.

In case I haven’t made myself quite clear, I’m not just trying to make life more difficult for Giannis, Cyprus’s representative on the course, who’s been sitting through the Hellenic-monikered species being reeled off as part of our Biology and Taxonomy of Insects module with a distinct air of ‘heard it all before’.

And all of this is absolutely no argument against scientific names per se. Of course, they will always have primacy – but they shouldn’t sit on their own, or they might just find themselves in sparse company.

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