Names for butterflies

John Acorn janature at
Wed Jun 9 17:31:36 EDT 1999

Fellow Butter-folks and Rhopalocerologists,

I am really enjoying this exchange of ideas.  

I'd like to suggest a possible way through the apparent tension between
proponents of English and scientific names (yes, James Adams is right,
"Latinized" is better than "Latin" but once we have gone that far, why not
back off and just say "scientific"?).  It seems to me that there are two
very well-justified positions here and that both must be respected.  On the
one hand, we need to respect those amatures who find scientific names
difficult and daunting (largely because of uncertainty about pronunciation).
 On the other, we need to respect the biological rigour and international
utility of scientific names, and the expert work that goes into generating

I suspect that nurturing a community of butterfly enthusiasts is a two step
process.   First, in order to lower the threshold for entry into the world
of butterfly appreciation, one really must use names that people are
comfortable with.  Second, once you have introduced someone to the field, it
is then our basic intellectual responsibility as biologists to explain the
virtues of scientific names.  To expect everyone to go from stage 0 to stage
10 without any stops from 1-9 is, indeed, elitist, and I am not an elitist. 
Fly fishermen say that "a river needs friends" and that those who keep the
good spots secret will soon find them destroyed for lack of protection.  I
think that butterflies need friends too.  I also think that the appreciation
of butterflies is one way to enhance the quality of one's life, and that
this is worth sharing (and there is no better way to learn than to teach).

Let me give a personal example.  In 1993 I published an beginners' book on
the butterflies of Alberta.  In it, I left all of the scientific names to
the checklist at the back-- a bold move, and I knew it at the time.  Since
it was published, it has done quite well.  In fact, one fellow author would
not believe me when I told him exactly how many had sold, since according to
his information the number was greater than that for the Peterson's eastern
guide, published a year earlier.  (Don't get me wrong-- I like both the
Peterson guides.)  My point is that in the ensuing six years I have seen
very few criticisms of the way I treated the scientific names, and all of
these came from people who already knew the scientific names.  Among the
neophytes who bought the book, the most common complaint was that "my" names
did not correspond to the names in other recent books (I followed the Miller
list, which I believe was the right thing to do at the time).  The overall
result, aided by the subsequent publication of Bird et. al.'s more
comprehensive book on the Alberta fauna, was that we now have a large and
keen group of lepidopterists here.  In fact, there are apparently 40
butterfly counts scheduled for the province this summer-- more than any
other province or state, I suspect.  Those who stick with it learn both sets
of names, and the world of butterfly studies is the richer for it, don't you

John Acorn

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