English Names

John Acorn janature at compusmart.ab.ca
Tue Jun 8 11:01:19 EDT 1999


I get the feeling that we are acheiving something here.  Let's keep it
going, and see what progress we can instigate.

I write field guides, by the way, and I have already published three (Acorn,
1993, Butterflies of Alberta; Baron and Acorn, 1997, Birds of Coastal
British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest Coast; Fisher and Acorn, 1998,
Birds of Alberta-- all Lone Pine Publshing).  Consequently, I am sensitive
to the needs of a general naturalist audience, and since I am working on
more books, I am continually reassessing my views.  One thing I keep coming
back to is the impression that readers do not want the most rational or best
justified set of English names, they want a standard set, and stability is
seen as a primary role of taxonomy, at which the specialists are perceived
to be failing.  And as Trevor Boyd points out, the broader the
standardization in geographic terms, the more useful the names will be.

So why do gardeners use Latin names so easily, as Doug Yanega asked?  Good
question.  Tropical Fish Hobbyists are the same way.  Here's my guess-- the
main obstacle to using scientific names seems to be uncertainty about
pronunciation.  It is easy to find a garden centre, or a pet store, in which
one learns pronunciation in a social context.  It is much harder to find a
group of butterfly enthusiasts.  At least it is now.  Things are improving
in this respect, and the number of naturalists with an interest in
butterflies is growing rapidly.

Mark Walker suggested that with respect to English names, "science doesn't
place any demands nor bestow authorization concerning their use."  This has
been the case historically with respect to butterflies, but it is not a
basic tenet of science.  As has been mentioned, the American Ornithological
Union has done exactly that for birds, and the Entomological Society of
America has done it for selected (mostly pests) insects and related

Cris Guppy's feelings about the North American Butterfly Association's list
are, I think, shared by many lepidopterists:  "the NABA list is THEIR list,
and it need not be paid attention to unless one chooses to acknowledge their
self-proclaimed authority."  I agree with this, but only in part.  Yes, NABA
has behaved poorly, and I have had a few run-ins with Jeff Glassberg myself,
as evidenced by our exchange a few years back in the News of the
Lepidopterists Society.  I complained to the directors of NABA about his
editorial practices, and eventually was told in a vague way that this
problem was unavoidable since the position of president and editor in NABA
is not an elected one, it is a self-appointed one (and please, if I got this
wrong, someone correct me-- no one has explained the situation in so many

However, the fact remains that NABA is a growing organization filled with
exactly the sorts of people that expert lepidopterists should be trying to
help.  Reading the inside cover of the Journal of the Lepidopterists'
Society, it is clear to me that the aim of this society is to promote the
study of butterflies and moths by BOTH the professional and the amature.  It
is therefore a failure of responsibility (in my personal opinion) to
relegate the amatures (be they watchers or collectors) to the realm of a
"them" group and still produce books and other publications, written by
"us,"  that "they" will rely on for information and guidance.   Right now,
NABA's list is the closest thing there is to a standardized list, and until
that changes I plan to follow it, despite irritating behaviour on the part
of that society (of which I am, yes, a member).

Chris Durden has suggested that "we need an open forum for a standardization
of vulgar names."  This reminded me of the way the Dragonfly Society of the
Americas created their set of official English names:  they sent all the
nominated names out to all their members for a vote, and then accepted the
winning names in an entirely democratic fashion.  Now it seems to me that in
the realm of butterflies, "science" is represented by the Lepidopterists'
Society.  If anyone on the LS excecutive is reading this, perhaps they could
explain why the society has not taken a leadership role in standardizing
butterfly names in North America.  If the society chooses not to do this,
could they perhaps turn the task over to the ESA, and appeal to them to
provide the sort of authority that true standardization requires?  NABA
doesn't have the neccessary clout to pull it off, and my question is simply,
who does and why don't they do it?

Finally, I think we should all be clear on the use of terms.  We seem to use
"scientific name" and "latin name" interchangeably," which seems fine.  I
think "English name" is better than "common name" since it refers to the
language, not the frequency of use (and "vulgar name" means the same, but
has unfortunate perjorative overtones).  "British" refers to the country, by
the way, while "English" refers to the language.

Looking forward to more discussion.

John Acorn

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