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The trouble with common names

By Dr. Staffan Lindgren, University of Northern British Columbia

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When teaching Invertebrate zoology, entomology or forest entomology, I am regularly asked by students if they can use common names. Mostly this request is precipitated by the perceived difficulty of memorizing, let alone pronouncing, Latin names. I am fairly relaxed about these things, particularly with forestry students, who are quite unlikely to become entomologists no matter how you define that term.  It should be clarified that forest entomology is taught within a Disturbance Ecology and Forest Health course at my institution (UNBC), with diagnostics in half of a separate lab course. My stock answer is thus that they may use common names as long as the name clearly defines the species they are referring to.

Foresters are prone to colloquial terms, whether with respect to insects, trees or other organisms. For example, subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) is called balsam by many, if not most foresters in BC, even though it is a distinct species from balsam fir (Abies balsamea) of eastern North America. Similarly, Pissodes strobi, the white pine weevil, is called spruce weevil (a legacy of the days when this weevil was considered three separate species, two of which primarily infest different spruce species in the west) or simply leader weevil.  The reason, supposedly, is that it is the wood quality that matters in terms of trees, and the type of damage with respect to insects. The consequences of being a bit loose with the taxonomy of a particular species may therefore seem fairly inconsequential in forestry.

Incidentally, our forestry students have even more to worry about when it comes to pathology, which they have to learn at the same time, as the same biological organism often has two completely different Latin names (including genera) depending on whether it is the sexual or asexual form (why this remains an accepted practice is beyond me), and they often do not have common names. Add the fact that fungal species seem to change name more often than I change vehicles (I was going to write ‘shirt’, but didn’t want to gross anyone out making you think that I wear the same shirt for years), and it becomes rather a nightmarish proposition for the poor students.

When it comes to entomology in general, however, common names are most commonly used in casual conversation, particularly with members of the public. For entomologists this is usually not a problem, but for non-entomologists it can be very confusing.  For example, colloquial use of ‘bug’ is pretty much anything that is small and crawls or flies around. Taxonomically it is quite specific (Hemiptera: Heteroptera). Ladybugs (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) are perhaps the most recognizable insects to people in general, but they are clearly not bugs. Plant lice (Aphidoidea and Phylloxeroidea), bark lice (Psocoptera) and body lice (Phthiraptera) represent three vastly different taxonomic groups. In addition, if the non-louse groups above were to be correctly written to show that they are not Phthirapterans, there should be no space – however for these common names that principle is never applied as far as I can tell. It is to differentiate dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies, mayflies, whiteflies etc. from the true flies. For example, a dragon fly, if there were such a thing (and probably there is somewhere – perhaps a decapitating fly (Phoridae) comes close enough to earn that epithet!) would be a dipteran, whereas a dragonfly is not. How is a non-entomologist supposed to know that (assuming that it is important to anyone except us entomophiles)? Then we can go on to more obvious misnomers such as ‘white ants’, which aren’t ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) at all, but termites (Isoptera).

Going back to forest entomology, one can have all kinds of fun with some common names, the origin of some could serve as fodder for endless speculation. For example, when discussing the problems with common names, I ask my students what they think a sequoia pitch moth (Synanthedon sequoiae)(Lepidoptera: Sesiidae) would attack. The correct answer is naturally “mostly lodgepole pine, but not sequoia”. Similarly, the Douglas-fir pitch moth (Synanthedon novaroensis) commonly breeds in lodgepole pine, but as far as I know not in Douglas-fir. I then go on to western spruce budworm, which as the name does not imply primarily attacks Douglas-fir.

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant

Clearly one cannot expect members of the public to keep track of Latin names of insects, so common names are here to stay. I was interested to find in a book I recently purchased (Ellison et al. 2012) that the authors had invented common names for every species by essentially translating the Latin species epithet. That creates an interesting situation vis-à-vis the attempt of entomological societies to standardize common names (http://www.esc-sec.ca/ee/index.php/cndb; http://www.entsoc.org/common-names). Nevertheless, some ants simply retained their genus name, e.g., Harpagoxenus canadenis became “The Canadian Harpagoxenus” (not sure why, as they named the genus “The robber guest ants”), Formica hewitti became “Hewitt’s ant”,  Myrmica brevispinosa (the species in the photo accompanying this article) is called “The short-spined ant”, and perhaps my favourite Lasius subglaber was named “The somewhat hairy fuzzy ant”. Common names aren’t generally that innovative, but Latin names certainly can be.

Many years ago May Berenbaum (1993) wrote a column on this topic. If students would all read Dr. Berenbaum’s eminently humorous take on how insects get named, they would without a doubt get a new appreciation for both Latin names and their creators, and perhaps feel less trepidation about memorizing them. Then not only true blue entomologists would be tempted to buy a bumper sticker that read “Sona si Latine loqueris” (Honk if you speak Latin) (Unverified from http://www.latinsayings.info/).

Berenbaum, M. 1993. “Apis, Apis, Bobapis….”, American Entomologist 39: 133-134.

Ellison, A.M., N.J. Gotelli, E.J. Farnsworth, and G.D. Alpert. 2012. A field guide to the ants of New England. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 398 pp.

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One comment on “The trouble with common names

  1. […] there are a lot of opinions about using common names for insects/spiders, I am generally in support of this idea. I think a more general audience likes to use common names, […]

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