English Names

John Acorn janature at compusmart.ab.ca
Mon Jun 7 14:24:03 EDT 1999

Some further thoughts,

I hesitate to engage this group on a sensitive issue, but I can't help but
feel that debates that continue to pop up are still worth pursuing.  It's
not the "same old debate" if one makes progress in resolving it.

So, may I gently suggest first that those who think that Andrew Torry's list
of English names came from Portugal, go back and reread the message.  The
list is from Cornwall, which is in the UK, and the reference to Portugal had
to do with rainfall.  With this cleared up, I repeat my observation that the
English names for British Lepidoptera are relatively stable, and easily
accessible to all English speaking people who care enough to own a book or
two on the subject (this is why I reminded the group that the language we
use on this list-server is English, at least 99% of the time).  

To repeat, my comments had to do with the situation in Britain, and how it
is in many ways worth emulating.

This brings me to a general point that is clearly worth discussing, if not
simply fixing, namely the characteristic tone of the messages on this list. 
I subscribe to a few others, on entomological topics, and I am frequently
distressed at the lack of intelligent guidance among this group.  There seem
to be no senior voices of reason and wisdom, or if they do appear, they do
so briefly and tentatively.  Are these people tired of getting beat up for
trying to help?  It seems that we have, in some way, created a subculture in
which everyone involved feels perfectly justified in assuming that they know
better than everyone else.  I'll try hard to avoid falling into this
category, and I hope you all will too.  I'm on this list to learn things by
sharing ideas, and I can't think of another good reason to be here.

Which brings us back to English names.  For years, North Americans have put
up with a continual stream of field guides in which each new author felt
empowered to invent new names if they saw fit.  This tradition is so strong
that when a "standard" list of English names was published (by Jaquelin
Miller), the folks at NABA immediately responded by publishing their own
alternative "official" list.  The resulting loss of credibility to the
entire butterfly community seems to have resulted in the retention of the
old attitude, such that we still hear things like "those names that are not
a good fit in the minds of butterfly people will be avoided no matter how
many times they appear in books and lists" (from Norbert Kondla's posting
earlier today). And if you look at Jeff Glassberg's new book, he doesn't
even follow the NABA list entirely either.  (The name "Arctic Fritillary"
does not appear on the NABA list.)  Thus, even the most adamant proponent of
the NABA list seems to feel he is personally above it.  Not that I am
faulting Jeff or Norbert personally-- I am simply using them as examples of
what I see as a general problem. 

As many of you know, by the way, among bird people the correct thing to do
is to wait for the new edition of the ONE official list to come out before
using a name, even if you suspect the name will be adopted.  And when the
new name is announced, you give up on the old one. You respect the integrity
of your field, and sacrifice some small part of your personal ego for the
good of the group.  Individual birders don't seem to feel that they have the
right to decide personally what is an is not a "good species," but they
still enjoy discussing individual instances where the topic is poorly

So how did this problem arise among lepidopterists?  I'd be interested in
the views of those who have been at it for longer than me (ten years
seriously, but with a lifelong interest that started 35 years ago), but I
suspect it is the result of a scientific community that does not take
English names seriously, and therefore never set up the equivalent of the
AOU names for birds.  Sadly, what this community has offered instead is a
distressingly unstable set of Latin names, hardly worth the effort for the
non-lepidopterist, and at this point, hopelessly confusing to almost all of
us, whether we admit it or not.

Now please, if we pursue this topic, please let's try to stay off the high
horses.  The people on this list are not ignorant-- just testy after so many
unnecessary verbal muggings, and clearly well-informed and worthy of
respect.  I have offered what I think are intelligent observations here, and
I would appreciate it if they are treated as such, rather than as targets
for condescention.  There are good reasons to be polite, even behind the
electronic screen in front of you.

Peace, with progress as a side effect,

John Acorn

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