So you think that’s a yam, hmmm?
One of the general purposes of language is to convey information. And yet so often, vernacular language ends up doing more harm than good.
Common names of species are a classic example of this, not to mention excessively irritating. They convey almost no information. Many, many species can share a single common name, while each species can have several common names. As you can imagine this leads to a great deal of confusion. Try looking up “clover” sometime in the USDA PLANTS Database under “Common Name search”, and you get 342 different species – not an exhaustive list. How, then, is it possible to answer the question, “Is clover invasive?” Common names can convey false information, value judgments, or imply relationships that do not exist. Eastern Red Cedar and Southern Red Cedar are subspecies. Logically, Western Red Cedar would be as well, right? Not so much, not even the same genus… but hey, at least they are in the same family! Of course, it’s not the family that true cedars are in (the genus Cedrus is in the Pine Family; several other ‘cedars’ are in the Cypress Family). ‘Cedar Fever’, the allergic reaction to pollen, plagues the American southwest – and yet no cedars actually grow there. Canada geese are native to Canada, but Canada thistle isn’t. And there are plenty of examples of common names demonstrating a less than desirable amount of political correctness (Africanized Killer bees? Really?). Common names can literally be made up on the spot. When it was inconvenient for oil seed farmers to market a new cultivar of rapeseed oil, because of it’s rape-y connotations, they just changed it – to canola (CANadian Oil, Low Acid). New Zealand fruit exporters in the 1950s changed the Chinese gooseberry to kiwifruit, to remind everyone who ate it of their national symbol, the kiwi bird (though they briefly flirted with the name “melonette”). Some common names don’t even have the benefit of being short, compelling, or easy to remember. Ovate goat grass, anyone?
And yet we keep using them. Sometimes even biologists! Ornithologists regularly refer to their study species using common names IN THE LITERATURE. True, there is a governing body (the International Ornithological Congress) which standardizes which name is used for which species, so at least there is no longer the problem of a single name referring to several species. But it apparently only standardizes only the English names – how truly international is that? A Mexican ornithologist of my acquaintance had remarkable difficulties in communicating her research to ornithologists in Texas, even though the species she studies is native there. In Mexico, the species is called Tanagara roja (which translates to ‘red tanager’). In Texas, there are at least two species of tanagers which are red – one the Scarlet Tanager, and one the Summer Tanager. Guess which one is Tanagara roja? In addition to that, there is the appalling practice of reusing names between the Eastern and Western hemispheres, without regard to taxonomic relationships. New World Warblers and Old World Warblers – not related. Ornithologists, please explain yourselves! How do you manage to do science under these conditions?!
Of course there is already a scheme in place to assure the accurate description of unique species, with unique relationships, across geographical and language barriers. It’s called a scientific name. Carl Linneaus figured that one out for us in 1753.