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 http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/common
February 11, 2008
From: Sylvia Eggert
Do Nudibranchs have common names? For example, Bullinia Lineata, is this its species name and common name?
firstname.lastname@example.orgEggert, S. F., 2008 (Feb 11) Common Names. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/21296
The example name you used is spelt Bullina lineata and only the first name begins with a capital letter. This is the species' scientific name and as you will see on the Fact Sheet about 'common names' it is the only name worth using if you want to be understood worldwide.
All animals have two words in their scientific name and we call this a binomial system - [bi = two; nomen = name]. The first word Bullina is the genus name - the genus being a group of closely related animals. If you look in the species list you will see that first names often repeat themselves. All the species with the same first name are closely realted to each other. The second name, in this case lineata is what we call the species epithet. It shouldn't be called the species name because we don't go round talking about 'I found a 'lineata' yesterday' - or if we do we shouldn't - because lineata is used for many species and just means 'lined'. The animal's 'species name' is Bullina lineata which we usually write in italics. We can shorten it to B. lineata if its clear we are talking about a species of Bullina, but we shouldn't use such shorthand if the 'B' could be confused with all the other genera, such as Bulla or Bothryembrion, which start with B.
It's a system that works quite well because it means every species has a unique name. By including the genus name as well it means we can link related species together, much like many human cultures use surnames or family names.
February 1, 2008
From: Maria Vanhart
Concerning message #3970:
Does Chromodoris kuniei have a common name?
i am new to identification and photography
email@example.comVanhart, M., 2008 (Feb 1) Does Chromodoris kuniei have a common name. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/21343
The short answer is that it doesn't have a common name. Have a look at the Fact Sheet I have on the use of common names
August 28, 2007
From: Dave Washburn
Concerning message #20504:
Thanks for the encouraging words, and I have a question specifically for you. How come your new book, "Eastern Pacific Nudibranchs " doesn't include an index to common names?
Again, thanks for the encouragement. Nudibranchs are quickly becoming our favorite critters.
firstname.lastname@example.orgWashburn, D.L., 2007 (Aug 28) Re: Colour variation in Dirona albolineata. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/20562
As you might know from reading various replies, I am not a big fan of common names. The main problem is that these names are used non-uniformly around the world, and may apply to different species. White lined, this and that, tells us nothing, and can lead to miss-communications. Ali and I put many in the book, but hope readers will use the scientific nomenclature in the end. Hence no Index of Common Names. The scientific names are not that hard to learn, and force you to group similar species within genera and family. See Bill's comments on common names
Hope you understand,
February 23, 2003
What does rostanga pulchra mean in English?
email@example.comBrendan, 2003 (Feb 23) What does Rostanga pulchra mean?. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/9262
This sounds like a question a teacher has given the class. Rostanga pulchra is the scientific name of a nudibranch. It doesn't have a meaning. I guess you would be puzzled if someone asked you what 'brendan' meant in English, just as I would if someone asked me what 'bill' meant. It doesn't mean anything - it's our names!
We give animals and plants scientific names so that everyone in the world uses the same name for the same animal. For example, there must be a 1000 names for a lion in different languages around the world, but when biologists call it by its scientific name, Panthera leo, they all know what they are talking about. Under a set of international rules, scientific names are made either from Ancient Greek or Latin words, or if words from modern languages are used, they have to be 'latinised'. Scientific names can be made from existing words, or they can just be made up. I am not sure whether Rostanga is a made up word. Sometimes names of ancient gods and mythical characters are used. However, pulchra is from a Latin word meaning pretty. I named another species of Rostanga, Rostanga bassia, because it came from a place called Bass Strait, and there is another species called Rostanga arbutus, because arbuta refers to the cherry, and the species is cherry red. However this doesn't mean that Rostanga arbutus means the 'cherry red Rostanga' or that Rostanga bassia means the 'Bass Strait Rostanga'. It just shows how scientists make up new names.
Some books have English 'translations' alongside scientific names. These are silly, and often don't make sense and are certainly NOT the meaning of the scientific names. They don't need a meaning - they are names. I hope you have an interesting class discussion at school.
September 7, 2002
From: Jun Imamoto
Dear Patricia and Bill,
Japanese people also show a tendency to look for a common name too. But, I think these names are almost meaningless in the academic place, because anyone can introduce a general name.
Because of that, the same sea slug sometimes has more than one general name. I think that this is a source of much confusion. Actually, I am often confused about the Japanese names of some sea slugs.
firstname.lastname@example.orgImamoto, J., 2002 (Sep 7) Re: French Common Names. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/7906
September 6, 2002
From: Patricia Danna
I am photographer working mainly in Indo-Pacific. My photo-agency is in Paris and asks for the common names of each species in French. Do you know a anywhere I can find this information (book, web...).
Thank you for your help.
email@example.comDanna, P., 2002 (Sep 6) French Common Names. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/7885
I am afraid most species don't have common names in any language. Have a look at my views on common names. Also look at other postings on this topic which are attached below. There are plenty of photobooks in English which have invented 'common' names to please their editors or publishers. This is quite absurd in itself. If you were to translate these 'common names' into French it would just be taking the absurdity to a higher level.
May 28, 2002
From: Marina Poddubetskaia
As promised, here is the URL of my site Nembro which has recently come on line http://www.nembro.info.
I have had remarks concerning the 'sea slug' appellation. It seems that in France we can't call all opisthobranchs 'sea slugs'. Here, sea slug = nudibranch and nothing else. Is it the same in Australia? And now, I don't know how to call other orders of opisthobranchs…
Thanks again for your help.
firstname.lastname@example.orgPoddubetskaia, M., 2002 (May 28) In France 'Sea Slug' = nudibranch?. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/6955
Congratulations on your site. Concerning the word 'Sea Slug'. I guess its the continuing problem with common names. I suspect whoever is giving you advice doesn't really know what they are talking about. 'Sea Slug' is a very broad term encompassing all opisthobranch molluscs and unfortunately sometimes some non-mollusc animals such as Holothurians. My feeling was that 'limace de mer' had the same wide meaning in French as 'Sea Slug' has in English so I did a quick web search in google.com and quickly confirmed this view. Although 'limace de mer' is used for nudibranchs, as in English, it is also used for Sea Hares [also = Lièvre de mer, Aplysie, Pisse-Vinaigre] and sacoglossans.
For example, on the website of The Natural History Museum, Paris, 'Limace de mer' is used as a synonym of 'l'aplysie' [http://www.mnhn.fr/expo/cerveaux/sommaire.htm].
And on another site about the pest alga Caulerpa taxifolia in the Mediterranean, 'limace de mer' is used for the sacoglossan Elysia. [http://www.ifrance.com/asame/francais/exocetus1999/article4/exocetusarticle4.htm].
My advice is to use limace de mer = sea slug = Opisthobranchia. People who tell you otherwise are just wrong.
January 7, 2002
From: Jeff Orehek
I am looking for the scientific name and any other information available on the Striped Pajama Nudibranch species of sea slug. I have looked on this site and numerous others but have been unable to find anything. If I could find the scientific name I'm sure that would help a lot.
email@example.comOrehek, J., 2002 (Jan 7) Striped Pajama Nudibranch. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/5906
If you look at the my general comments on using common names, and at the other messages on this page you will see that I don't think common names are a very good idea for sea slugs. I don't know of any species which is commonly called the Striped Pajama Nudibranch. I did a quick web search for 'Pajama Nudibranch' and came up with three sites all referring to animals from the Red Sea. One did not identify the slug, and the others referred to two quite different nudibranchs - Nembrotha megalocera and Chromodoris quadricolor.
I don't know if you have more than the common name to start with but I really can't help more unless I have a photo or further information on what you are calling the Striped Pajama Nudibranch.Rudman, W.B., 2002 (Jan 7). Comment on Striped Pajama Nudibranch by Jeff Orehek. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/5906
November 3, 2001
From: Kathe R. Jensen
This is not really about sea slug names, but it is about "managing" common names. I am collaborating with a Cambodian fisheries biologist, and we are producing some posters with marine life of Cambodia. The first 2 posters (crabs and bivalves) caused no problems. We showed our pictures to fishermen in different villages, and they gave us the names they used. So, of course some of the most common species have different "common" names in the Khmer language (which, by the way, have very beautiful letters - which unfortunately I cannot read). We just completed the lay-out for the second set of posters, and could not find common names for 2 prosobranch snails of the genus Oliva. I thought we would just go ahead and print without Khmer names, but my colleague thought we should try to make some, and he asked me about the meaning of the Latin names. It is not easy to explain what an olive is to someone who has never seen one! Finally we decided to call someone in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and it appears that in Cambodia there is actually a very complicated bureaucratic way of having new names applied to previously "unknown" objects. I believe that this applies mostly to electronic equipment and other new inventions, but apparently also to names for animals and plants. You have to submit an application explaining about the name in foreign languages, and there is a review board, which then has to approve the name, and I believe it even has to have a ministerial signature to be "official". - Well,we decided to take those 2 species out of the poster and replace them with species that had a Khmer name.
firstname.lastname@example.orgJensen, K.R., 2001 (Nov 3) Re: About sea slug names . [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/5615
Thanks for a wonderful story,
November 3, 2001
From: Jun Imamoto
Thank you for your answer about scientific names. It explained the importance of the scientific name well, with which I agree.
The reason why a Japanese can't get used to the scientific name seems to be in the difficulty of the Latin pronunciation. Although Japanese people can pronounce the Roman alphabet comparatively easily we don't know if we are pronouncing the scientific names properly? I think we must do something to make a scientific name spread in Japan.
email@example.comImamoto, J., 2001 (Nov 3) Re: About sea slug names. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/5617
Don't worry too much about how you pronounce scientific names. My European colleagues often laugh at my pronunciation of some scientific names and I must admit that I find the pronunciation of some of our American colleagues quite incomprehensible. But it doesn't take long for us to sort out the few words we don't understand. So my advice is do your best and if you meet someone who pronounces a word differently from you just remember that no one really knows how the Romans pronounced their words.
November 2, 2001
From: Jun Imamoto
There is a question about sea slug names. A scientific name is being used in the Forum because this is thought to be a universal name used throughout the world. In Japan we also have a Japanese name as well as the scientific name.
Chromodoris orientalis is called shiro-umiushi.
Elysia ornata is called konoha-midorigai.
But, there is a problem with these japanese names because there does not seem to be an organisation managing their use. This has lead to alternative 'Japanese names' being used. Is there a name other than the scientific name in Australia?
How are they managed if it is here? I am very interested in hearing your reply.
firstname.lastname@example.orgImamoto, J., 2001 (Nov 2) About sea slug names . [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/5561
An interesting question. I have often wondered if there was some organisation which controlled or supervised the system of 'Japanese names' which has developed in Japan. As far as I know Japan is the only country that has developed this custom of giving a 'Japanese name' to species when they are first described.
In general, there are two types of common names which can be called 'Real' common names and 'Artificial' common names:
• Real Common Names are names that local people have used for an animal which is part of their local environment - something they eat, use for decoration, see all the time, etc. These names may have existed long before scientific names were invented. While such names are useful locally they can cause major problems nationally and worldwide. Fish are an excellent example of this. In Australia there may be 20 different common names used in different places for the same species of fish, and sometimes the same common name is used in different parts of Australia for different species of fish. So no-one knows what they are talking about when they buy & sell fish throughout the country. And the problems are even greater when Australians export fish to Europe, because many Australian names are derived from English names for quite different species of fish.
This is why scientific names are so useful. An animal can have only one scientific name and it has worldwide currency. As well as being a 'name' it also gives us a short summary of the evolutionary history of the animal as well. In animals like opisthobranchs there are very few true 'common names' anywhere in the world. Apart from 'Sea Hare' (Aplysia spp) and 'Spanish Dancer' (Hexabranchus sanguineus) there are not many names in common daily use for opisthobranchs.
• Artificial Common Names
When you look at an identification guide book you will usually find there are 'common names' for all species. These are nonsense names - often no more than a bad translation of the scientific name. Why publishers and authors do this I have no idea - I guess they think their readers will be more comfortable with 'English names' but I think this is insulting to their readers who are quite capable of learning scientific names. I don't know if dinosaurs are popular with kids in Japan, but certainly in Australia most kids can tell you the long scientific names of their favourite dinosaurs. So if kids have no problem with these names why should adults?
I hope I haven't moved too far from your question, but I think manufactured common names are confusing and unnecessary. I would be interested to know whether it is a problem to write scientific names in the Japanese alphabet? If so perhaps this would explain the tradition of 'Japanese names'.
June 14, 2000
From: Valda Fraser
I would like you to comment on common names for nudibranchs. I have only 2 books where common names are given in addition to scientific names. I also notice that the common names given do not always correspond. Is there a list of common names registered somewhere, or do the authors merely make them up themselves?
email@example.comFraser, V., 2000 (Jun 14) Common names for nudibranchs. [Message in] Sea Slug Forum. Australian Museum, Sydney. Available from http://www.seaslugforum.net/find/2522
Common names are a problem because they are seldom in common use. As you suspect they are often made up by authors often under pressure from publishers. 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 species names.
Because I am often commenting on the use of 'common names' I have made a special page for any discussion on common names.