Vernacular fail: Common names

So you think that’s a yam, hmmm?

Eaten by North Americans only on Thanksgiving.

One of the general purposes of language is to convey information. And yet so often, vernacular language ends up doing more harm than good.

Eaten by more than 200 million as a staple food.

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?!

¿Cuál es su nombre?

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.

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7 thoughts on “Vernacular fail: Common names

  1. Yay, you wrote about my favourite topic! I’ve been asked about the difference between yams and sweet potatoes so many times (usually at sushi restaurants) that I’ve been thinking about printing some little business card-type things to hand out. (I’ve also seen supermarkets selling what are clearly two different cultivars of Ipomoea as “yams” and “sweet potatoes”.)

    I’ve noticed among bird researchers that North Americans often use English common names for the species they study, because the names are well standardized, while non-North Americans, especially those who speak English as a second language, use the scientific names. Confusion galore!

  2. I intentionally didn’t include scientific names in the post to demonstrate how little information you get out of common names – who knows what species I’m actually talking about? But now my own writing is irritating me!

  3. Pingback: The definitive post about yams versus sweet potatoes « The view from Helicon

  4. Don’t dismiss the use of common names too quickly — they often convey important information, even to biologists. The relationship between Blue capped Ifrita and choresine beetles (batrachotoxins) might never have been uncovered except for the indigenous name common to the sensation experienced by tasting both beetle and bird.

    Also, look closely at the work of Brent Berlin and others regarding folk taxonomy.

    Lastly, scientists don’t always get scientific names right either. As a method of making sure of species and communicating about them, it is unparalleled . But consider Ilex vomitoria. Who would drink tea from a plant named thus? Well, most southeastern native tribes did. Traded in large amounts, plantations were created to grow it well outside its normal range. Perhaps we’d all be drinking this instead of coffee (it contains caffeine), had it not been so unfortunately named.

    • It’s true, it’s not impossible for common names to encode valuable information. And certainly, scientific names can be designed so as to be information sparse. For example, that spider that was named after Stephen Colbert, Aptostichus stephencolberti…. that doesn’t tell you much except perhaps the time period in which the taxonomist was describing the spider. It’s especially silly when the scientific name follows the vague information in the common name, such as Mustang Grapes (Vitis mustangensis – really has nothing to do with mustangs) or Ilex vomitoria (for the ‘Black Drink’ it was used in – a really interesting plant! Definitely planning on writing about it at some point!).

      But of course, acknowledging that would have thrown off the rant I had going about yams and ornithologists, two of my favorite things to rant about! 🙂 Thanks for you recommendations. I don’t know the story of the Blue capped Ifrita and choresine beetles, I will have to look it up!

  5. Pingback: Students of Ethnobotany: Where does paper come from? | Alien Plantation

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