Friday, 28 August 2015

How Dreadfully Common

A 1980s Coventry bus. (c) Clive A Brown CC BY-NC 2.0
"Don't say that, it's dreadfully common!" - or words to that effect - was a phrase I sometimes heard as a child. I can remember my grandmother telling me it was unladylike to whistle in public and to this day, I cannot unselfconsciously say "Cheers!" instead of a prim "Thank you!" when I get off the bus.

I sometimes feel similarly judged for using "common" language now by naturalists. If you're a wildlife enthusiast of any persuasion, I suspect you have had this conversation yourself too, in the pub, or its virtual equivalent, in the Great Name Controversy.

Here's why I think Common Names should be used, celebrated, catalogued - and even <gasp> invented - as much as Latin Names.

Names' Names

There are basically two types of names, and the names of the names are controversial in themselves - of course!

Latin Name

Taking the more recent invention first, we have the Latin or Scientific name of a taxon (species/genus/family....). In the case of species names Wikipedia recommends these are called binomial names or binomens (the latin name for latin name?!).

When I was a naive young naturalist, I called these "Latin Names", and a recent popular tome on the subject does too, John Wright's outstandingly named 2014 book The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names. He explains, better than I could,
"Many, perhaps most, scientists prefer the description 'scientific names'. Neither is entirely satisfactory: Latin names are more often of Greek or other non-Latin derivation. (they are merely 'Latinised'), while 'mass spectrometer' is as much a scientific name as Quercus robur (European Oak). 'Latinised scientific names of biological species' is accurate, but hardly convenient." 

Still, the opinion against Latin Name is strong enough that, working in a Local Environmental Records Centre producing lists and records of species, I have tended to go with the safer option of Scientific Name as my default field header - for a quiet life.

Common Name

Everything else we English-speakers call the flora and fauna around us, outside the dead language of taxonomy, is referred to as Common, English or Vernacular name(s). 

As a naive young naturalist, I called these "Common Names" but I got cuffed for that pretty rapidly when I started working with naturalists. "They aren't common as not everyone uses them!" or words to that effect, is the complaint. Turning to John Wright again, he says of Common Name,
"not in the sense of being vulgar (although they can be that too...) but in the sense of being everyday names for things."
So these people are taking the first definition of the adjective Common in my dictionary ("frequent, familiar") as applied to the name itself - and therefore the synonym as "Everyday" as John Wright did. I on the other hand understand "Common" to apply to the language used - if you are reading this blog, then English is our common language (in both the first definition in my dictionary, "familiar", and the second, "shared by two or more people"). To me Common Name is short for Common Language Name in the way that Latin Name is short for Latinised Binomial Name. The synonym then is English or Vernacular. 

Despite my preference, I use English Name as my default field header - for a quiet life. Vernacular ("the form of a language as commonly spoken, as opposed to the formal language") is fairly clear, but I think comes across as rather pompous, don't you? I didn't even know what it meant until I was quite old. 

In Defence of Common Names

John Wright says that Common is not in the sense of being vulgar. But my suspicion is that connotation  influences the views of some naturalists on non-binomen names, as does my dictionary's 8th definition of Common: "not of high class - the common people". 

There is an undeniable snobbery around the use of Common Names once you leave the realms of butterflies, birds and some common wild flowers. If you do use them, you are not doing natural history properly. Well if you haven't already guessed, I don't agree with that at all! Both Names are important and have advantages and disadvantages. As long as you are aware of the limitations, I think you should use whichever you find works for you.

For me, this is the Common Name 95% of the time. I sadly have always found learning vocabulary a huge barrier to speaking other languages. Similarly my brain just doesn't cope well with Latin Names. A few are catchy and I remember those. To me they essentially become Common Names - but sometimes only the specific name, not the full binomen. I remember Meles meles (though familiarity of doing data requests for ecological consultants), Rhagium mordax (sounds like Mordor in Lord of the Rings and Rhagium rolls off the tongue) and Carex diocia (Carex like the soap, and diocia I was told because unusually for a sedge the male and female are on separate plants). Sadly though despite working with Latin names every day for eight years, the names like this that are nice and short and I can remember are few and far between. For me, learning Latin names is a big barrier to being able to look at something and recognise it and record it.

Make no mistake, Latin Names are one of science's most brilliant inventions. I really enjoyed reading The Naming of the Shrew and finding out about how names are chosen, the grammatical rules and what some of the words mean, especially the puns. Taxonomy is a wonderful thing and being able to look up names and see which species are together in a genus is vital. Being able to communicate without translation problems about a particular species to any language speaker in the world is marvellous. Being able to clearly determine a species in a database or a collection is essential. But does that mean I personally need to remember them? Nope.

I want to learn names of things because then I understand the world around me better. It helps my brain process the world around me. The more names I can learn, the more I can learn. I find English names easier to learn. So by learning Common names, I grow to know nature better. 

It's not like in practice using Latin Names is without its problems. Tachydromia calcarata (Strobl, 1910) is a different species to Tachydromia calcarata (Collin, 1926) which as it happens is the same species as Platypalpus pseudociliaris (Strobl, 1910). I don't think I've come across a naturalist who has said to be "oh I don't know the common name for that" without following it at some point with "I don't know the modern  [scientific] name for this". The trouble with Latin Names is that they vary in time, as taxonomy moves on and species are moved around the biological family tree, split, lumped or old/foreign overlooked species descriptions come to light (as presumably happened with the example above). That is part of the science of taxonomy... But being able to call something a Water Vole rather than remember if its Arvicola amphibius or A terrestris or if a Great Tit should be Parus palustris or Poecile palustris is rather nice.

PLEASE use Common Names in Field Guides and Checklists

In the UK, we are fortunate to have the National Biodiversity Network's UK Species Inventory, run by the Natural History Museum. This catalogues together various checklists and synonymises them, an amazing achievement, especially because it does this for Common Names as well as Latin Names. For birds there are internationally standardised English names. For dragonflies for example, various English names are available and most odonatists will now use them when talking to everyday folk, even when they themselves prefer the Scientific Names they first learned.

As someone who has taken up moth recording I have found the situation with moths especially odd, where a single field guide will include the English names for some species and not others based on whether they are in a "macro" family or "micro" family. This appears to be because none of the authors of the most popular field guides have taken the plunge in adopting the micro moth names by Jim Porter which are in the UK species inventory to my knowledge, with the exception of Britain's Day-flying Moths (2013). Nor have they suggested alternatives.

Similarly I've found it really frustrating that a recent book like Britain's Hoverflies: A Field Guide doesn't have English names in it. I find it means that I learn where in the book a species is, not a name apart from perhaps knowing what it begins with.

I am sympathetic to the plight of people who have learned names, in their case scientific, struggling to learn these new names - after all I am pleading a laughable inability to learn names myself. However I dislike the condescension one sometimes finds when one dares to use properly catalogued vernacular names, especially online where converting from one to another and back again is easy (use the NBN Gateway or the NHM site). 

I don't give a fig who made up the name or when. So for those species that don't yet have Common Names - please schemes, societies and authors follow the examples of Jim Porter, the British Mycological Society, and even the Guardian newspaper. We are going through a technological revolution in natural history and the subject is more accessible than ever before as people use the internet to access information before spending a lot of money on a lot of books. Those at the forefront of UK taxonomy and identification should be helping people get in to the wonderful world of wildlife, not putting barriers in their way because it somehow proves your worth as a naturalist. Being able to spell Glyphipterix fuscoviridella doesn't necessarily mean one can correctly identify it.

I am not the only one who finds the English names of moths one of the greatest delights of the hobby (Uncertain, or just Confused? The joy of moth trapping). Richard Mabey put the argument much more eloquently than me below. I will only add that as someone who cares about nature data, curating the common names is as valuable as curating the scientific ones, and I would like to thank everyone who so far has listed and catalogued our names for our species.
The invention of common names for moths continues among entomologists (partly for PR purposes) and now it's moved into the field of the micromoth, has become positively baroque. Recent gems include the large gold case bearer and the liquorice piercer. Mycologists are doing the same for the even greater numbers of fungi presently trapped with off-putting Latin IDs...
it's in the common English names that the real richness and fascination lie. Here are wild organisms' hues, habits, habitats, histories, and humans' histories and curiosity, too. It's not stretching meanings to say that the vernacular lexicon is part of the ecosystem, a living and growing web which links us with all other species.
Richard Mabey on the art of giving species their common names, The Guardian 11 June 2011.