Names . . .

DR. JAMES ADAMS jadams at
Wed Jun 9 10:30:06 EDT 1999

Dear listers,

            Well, I was going to stay out of this discussion this 
round, as I have had a lot to say in past rounds of this discussion, 
but I couldn't help myself.

          Just a few points:

1.  It bothers me to hear people talk about "resistance to" or "fear 
of" learning "scientific" names.  I *do* think part of the problem is 
some of us scientists; we need to be willing and open to the general 
public, and willing to use common names when communicating with 
people who don't know the scientific names.  To call them "Latin" 
names, however, is a joke.  "Latinized" maybe.  Alright, alright, 
some of the names are well-thought-through latin representations of 
something that has to do with the actual creature being described, 
but some have their roots in other languages (like Greek, etc.), and 
just as many are simply creative mind-wisps (the hymenopteran 
genera "Aha" and "Ohno" come to mind -- look at Doug Yanega's website 
and you'll see a huge sampling of scientific names that are far from 
being either Latin or scientific).  However, I do think that the 
general public can learn these names easily if we just look at them 
as another set of names.  The flower people learn them simply 
because those are the names that the flowers have.  Well, gee whiz, 
guess what?  The same is true for *all* scientific names of *all* 
organisms.  They have the name -- it just needs to be grasped with 
enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, maybe Anne is right and we need to teach 
people this early.  If scientific names are presented in an 
appropriate environment from an enthusiastic presenter, people would 
be much less afraid of the names and much more willing to learn.

2.  About pronunciation.  Ken was right -- don't worry about it!!  
Give it your best shot, and even if you are not technically correct, 
if you are able to pronounce the individual letters you should be 
able to produce a pronunciation that is recognizable to virtually 
everyone.  As for those scientists who demand precise enunciation, I 
say "pblpblpblfft"!  I like knowing what the exact pronunciation is 
(although this also may differ in different parts of the world, as 
was indicated before), but am thrilled when anyone is interested in 
learning these names.

3.  As for stability.  I think the point has clearly been made about 
communication across the face of the globe.  Common names simply are 
not useful for this.  I truly *do* believe that the English speaking 
world is very ethnocentric in terms of demanding common name usage.  
This is nothing short of inconsiderate and rude to the rest of the 
world (I have news for you -- English speakers are still the minority 
in the world!).  Although it may be possible to make common names 
reasonably stable in one language in one location, clearly it is 
impossible to do this worldwide.  On the other hand, this is exactly 
the point of scientific names.  Okay, so there is also instability in 
the scientific names, but each day progress is made toward more 
stability.  I do have news for everyone -- *no* set of names, common 
or scientific, is ever going to be completely stable.  Don't forget, 
humans came up with the names in the first place, and as long as 
humans are involved in the process (which is forever) there will be 
differences in opinion.  All that aside, scientific names do allow 
you to reach a much wider audience, and also indicate relatedness 
between organisms as has been discussed previously.  Don't get me 
wrong, I do use common names for butterflies and for a lot of moths, 
and some of these indicate relatedness appropriately as well.  It is 
important to know these as well, especially if you want to teach 
someone the scientific names that go with species for which they 
already know the common names.  Understand, though, that common names 
can also be misleading in terms of relationships.  The Great-Spangled 
Fritillary, the Variegated Fritillary, all the Lesser Fritillaries, 
although all nymphalids, are reasonably closely related but certainly 
not congeneric.  Throw in the Gulf Fritillary (at least in a 
different subfamily) and the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary (the only 
metalmark in Europe) and you can see what I mean.

What to make of all of this?  Don't be frightened of learning 
*either* set of names.  Learning scientific names can be fun, but 
doesn't automatically put you above your common-name using public, 
and knowing common names doesn't make you any less scientific.  

That's it (hopefully) . . .


Dr. James K. Adams
Dept. of Natural Science and Math
Dalton State College
213 N. College Drive
Dalton, GA  30720
Phone: (706)272-4427; fax: (706)272-2533
U of Michigan's President James Angell's 
  Secret of Success: "Grow antennae, not horns"

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