Common names - should we use them?

Common names are a major stumbling block when we are communicating with others. Unfortunately amateurs and book publishers are often intimidated by strange looking scientific names and so they invent 'common names'. This is in itself a contradiction in terms, because names invented this way are not 'common', in the sense of being in common use among the 'common people', but are only 'common' in the sense of being formed from the 'common language'.

There are some common names which have evolved through common use, such as 'Sea Hare' and 'Blue Sea Dragon' but usually such names are common only in a very small geographic area. Animals such as fish often have a wide geographic distribution and a huge number of people interested in talking about them, including those that catch them, those that sell them and those that eat them. In Australia when the government attempted to write laws to protect them, they found that in different parts of Australia the same fish had many common names and the same common name was applied to different fish. The most sensible approach would have been to use the scientific name for each species in the legislation, but instead, after much negotiation a standard list of legal common names was prepared.

You will notice in the Forum that I have been asked about such animals as the 'Bushy-backed Sea Slug', the 'Purple Sea Slug' and the 'Decorated Phyllidia'. Unfortunately these names appear to have been invented by authors under pressure from publishers to add 'the common touch'. Basically the names mean nothing. In eastern Australia Pteraeolidia ianthina is called the 'Blue Sea Dragon' by local divers. It is a very descriptive and appropriate name in this part of the world, but for such a widespread animal, using the scientific name is the only way eastern Australian divers will be able to search for information on the species and make themselves understood if they find one on a dive trip to the Philippines.

It is ironic that initially, the whole point of scientific names, and the Rules that govern their formation and use, was to overcome the problem of common names, and provide a universal dictionary of standard species names. By using Latin or latinised Greek, nationalistic prejudices, which curse many international endeavours would be avoided. There could be no arguments on whether, for example, German or Welsh or Swahili words would be acceptable. My advice is that we should all use the scientific names. If you are worried about how to pronounce a word, don't worry. If you go to a scientific meeting every second expert will pronounce the same name differently. And among amateur botanists and gardeners, scientific names have become the 'common names' for many plants.

If we use common names can they be shortened for every day use? Above the species level we often 'delatinize' or 'vulgarize' scientific names to produce a more comfortable language with words such as sacoglossan, chromodorid and aeolid. However even these words need a cautious interpretation. For example does 'aeolid' mean all members of the suborder Aeolidina or just members of the family Aeolidiidae? While we can live with these minor confusions, at the species level, shortening the scientific name is very confusing. In my job I often have conversations with shell collectors who will start long discussions about the beautiful gem quality 'lineata' or 'punctata' or 'flava' they have just acquired. Unless I know that they specialise on a particular family, then I have no idea what they are talking about.

So my advice is bite the bullet and start using the scientific names.

Bill Rudman.

Authorship details
Rudman, W.B., 2000 (June 13) Common names - should we use them?. [In] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from

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