Common names in different taxa

Michael Gochfeld gochfeld at
Mon Oct 5 18:18:33 EDT 1998

Birds have spoiled us those of us who like Common Names.  Most birds in North 
America have a "common" name that is truly common (except for recent splits 
where systematists have coined uncommon names).  But for dozens of species, the 
generic names have been unstable, shifting with every taxonomists' whim.  There 
are simply too many avian taxonomists working on too few species, who believe 
that every shift in understanding of phylogeny warrants altering the 
nomenclature. Every new molecular technique alters some phylogenies. There is 
lots of mischief afoot. The American Birding Association tries vainly to deal 
with the changes "approved" by the American Ornithologists' Union.

Butterflies have had common names for a century, but there is much more 
variation in the names even within North America as Miller showed in her book 
on common names. There aren't quite as many butterfly systematists as there are 
for birds.  Even so, common names have been more stable across time than the 
generic names. The NABA list has attempted to standardize the common names. 

Dragonflies hardly had much of a following until a decade ago, and only a few 
showy species had common names. Some of these were probably names for entire 
genera, since most people didn't or couldn't distinguish between species within 
some of the genera.  So attempts to give common names to species that never had 
them, is sure to create confusion as Doug has pointed out. 

As we get into taxa of insects where most non-specialists will be content to 
identify to family the matter becomes more complex.  I have to be content with 
appreciating the Bumblebees in my yard, even knowing that there may be a 
half-dozen species there. 

Apropos of Doug's illuminating list of flowers commonly known by their generic 
names, I should point out that Gene Eisenmann (d 1981), the dean of Central 
American ornithology, was at the center of controversy over the use of generic 
names as common names.  Hence some people would have included in the genus 
Atlapetes. the Rufous-naped Atlapetes, White-throated Atlapetes, etc, whereas 
others call these Brush Finches.  Brush Finch eventually prevailed. 
Name: Michael Gochfeld
E-mail: Michael Gochfeld <gochfeld at>
UMDNJ/RWJMS and EOHSI, Piscataway, NJ
Date: 10/05/98
Time: 17:18:35

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