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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A common name (also known as a vernacular name, colloquial name, trivial name, trivial epithet, country name, or farmer's name) is a name in general use within a community; it is often contrasted with a scientific name. A common name is not necessarily a commonly used name, nor is it considered less correct than a scientific name (as "common" might imply).



The term "common name" is widely used in relation to organisms, but also applies in other areas such as chemistry. When applied to organisms a common name is often compared and contrasted with its scientific name. A common name may be applied, as a proper noun, to both a single species of organism (e.g. red admiral ) or in a more general sense as a common noun (e.g. butterfly). This is essentially the same way we communicate about many other objects in everyday speech.

Some common names have persisted for generations, handed on by word of mouth within a particular community. But as the proportion of people living in cities has increased, and rural communities have become less interested in natural history, it can become progressively difficult to determine how extensive the common usage of a name really is.

Common names are also being created and manipulated to fit our needs. Scientists sometimes produce lists of "common names" that are not based on common usage but which attempt to correct confusion. For example, the genus Callitris is generally known as the "cypress pine", but it is neither a true cypress (Cupressus) nor a pine (Pinus) and so this common name might not be chosen to appear in a scientific list of common names, because it is misleading. With the increasing use of computer databases which include common names, it is convenient to list only one common name, when in fact several may be in use and sometimes there is a deliberate choice to use just one common name for each organism, in order to produce a more science-like naming system based on common names.

Of course many organisms simply do not have common names, and then names may be invented for convenience, or because it is assumed that common names are needed because they are considered to be easier to pronounce and to remember than scientific ones.


English language common names and corresponding scientific names
Common name Scientific name
wolf Canis lupus
earthworm Lumbricus terrestris
honey bee Apis mellifera
cone flower Echinacea sp.
Common Daisy, lawn daisy, English daisy Bellis perennis
white oak, Quebec oak Quercus alba
acetic acid, vinegar ethanoic acid
caffeine 1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6(3H,7H)-dione
brimstone sulphur
chalk calcium carbonate (calcite)
salt sodium chloride

Folk taxonomy

All classification systems are established for a purpose. Scientific or biological classification is a global system that uniquely denotes particular organisms, and helps anchor their position within the hierarchical scientific classification system. Maintenance of this system involves formal rules of nomenclature and periodic international meetings. Folk taxonomy, in contrast, has no formal rules.[1] Folk taxonomy, the way objects are grouped within the words of everyday speech, is demonstrated in the Western tradition of horticulture and gardening, where folk taxonomies serve various purposes. Examples would be the grouping of plants into: annuals, biennials and perennials (life cycle); vegetables, fruits, culinary herbs and spices (types of usages as food); herbs, trees and shrubs (growth habit); wild plants, cultivated plants, and weeds (whether they are deliberately planted or not, and whether they are considered to be a nuisance) and so on.[citation needed]

Use in biology

Not all organisms have common names; the largest, most abundant, most flamboyant, dangerous or useful — especially those that contribute to trade — have generally been specially identified in the vernacular because they have special relevance to humans.[citation needed] Some organisms on the other hand have numerous common names.


Origin and function

There is some evidence for the deep-seatedness of taxonomy which comes from patients who have, through accident or disease, suffered traumas of the brain. Scientists studying these patients’ brains have reported repeatedly finding damage — a deadening of activity or actual lesions — in a region of the temporal lobe, leading some researchers to hypothesize that there might be a specific part of the brain that is devoted to taxonomy. This turns out to be more serious than the loss of some dispensable librarian-like ability to classify living things. Without the power to order and name life, a person simply does not know how to live in the world, or how to understand it, because to order and name life is to have a heightened sense of the world around us and our place in it. And by locating ourselves within the natural world we are more likely to manage it in a sensitive way.[2]

The majority of English common names date back to antiquity dating back to the ancients and early Asian and European cultures (elm, oak, snail) handed down by oral tradition. The common names of animals and plants from countries like Australia and New Zealand include: names used by the indigenous people (kiwi, kangaroo, mulga, pohutukawa); names brought from Europe by the early settlers; well-known common names adapted by the settlers as names for native plants and animals (Tasmanian tiger, willow myrtle and mountain ash (applied to a eucalypt)).

The name will often indicate something about the organism's appearance, behaviour, origin or use (Dutchman's pipe, barking owl, sea slug, soap tree). Of course new names are constantly being added as plants and animals arrive in different regions or appear for the first time. Here could be included the Asian vegetables becoming increasingly popular in the West with their anglicised Asian names (pak choi and bok choi), and novel organisms like bird flu and mad cow disease.

Presentation (writing and printing)

Scientific names and the way they are written are governed by International Codes of Nomenclature (International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants). These Codes are not legally binding but are observed very closely by the scientific community. "Obeying" the various Articles, Rules and Recommendations in these Codes means that everyone is following the same conventions of scientific nomenclature and this assists stability by avoiding error and ambiguity during communication, especially across international boundaries.

One well-known scientific convention is the use of italicised Roman script for a species name, with the first letter of the genus name being always capitalized, so the scientific name of the common Atlantic limpet is Patella vulgata.

For common names, there are no such international codes and no agreed ground-rules, and thus the way common names are written depends on the prevailing usage. However, in certain situations specific naming conventions or house rules are established; for example, books, periodicals, newspapers and other media develop their own policies about the way common names should be presented. A significant exception is the capitalisation of bird names.[citation needed]

The Wikipedia Style Manual states, "Common (vernacular) names of flora and fauna should be written in lower case—for example, oak or lion" although allowance is made for a few exceptions. See head of this article for links to Wikipedia policy and procedure.

Geographic range of use

The geographic range over which a particular common name is used will vary; some common names have only local application while others may be virtually universal within a particular language. Vernacular names are generally treated as having a fairly restricted application, usually referring to the native language of a country or locality as opposed to more broad-based usage. A colloquial name may be regarded as of very local use, insufficient to be included in the general dictionaries of the language concerned[3]. In English, the common name cat is used across the English-speaking Western world, whereas the word "moggie", applied to the same genus, has only local use.

A common name which has a clear usage in a particular location may become ambiguous when used more widely. Names like "sardine" or "deer" are applied to dozens of different species in English-speaking countries worldwide. These two names are perfectly adequate in their original domains of use (fishing and hunting) when used in localities where only one appropriate species is known to occur.

Scientific names and common names

In some cases many scientifically different organisms have the same common name whereas one particular scientific entity might have many common names. Scientific names are established under a global system and are therefore the same in any part of the world and can be used with ease in any language; they act as unique identifiers for an organism.


Common names are often criticised for their lack of precision. The single greatest advantage of scientific names is that they uniquely denote a particular classification category. For instance, each species can have one, and only one, valid name within a particular classification system. In addition, scientific names in biology unambiguously denote a particular rank (level) within a classification system, so Homo sapiens has the rank of species, Homo the rank of genus, and Bellis perennis 'Aucubifolia' has the rank of cultivar.

Common names do not always accurately denote this sort of ranking. In botany, the common name "oak" is equivalent to the rank of genus Quercus and "red oak" the rank of species, Quercus rubra. In Australia, depending on the context, the plant common name bacon-and-eggs can refer to plants at the scientific level of family, genus or species.

Many scientifically different organisms can have the same common name; one particular species (or other classification category) will generally have a different common name in each language and sometimes many names in the same language. Sometimes a species is known by one name when it is a juvenile, and another name when it is an adult, see for example hard clam.

Together these factors might suggest that common names are generally unreliable or even misleading which is of course sometimes true. On the other hand scientific names do not always possess lasting stability; the Latin genus and species names for individual organisms are often revised in light of on-going research on the nomenclature and taxonomy of a species or genus. Thus occasionally common names are more constant over time than their scientific counterparts. The use of Māori names for some plants in New Zealand has remained the same while scientific names have undergone several changes.

Some common names, like "periwinkle", apply to both a mollusk and a plant. This use of the same name for very different groups of organisms does also occur with scientific names: the genus Morus is used for the mulberry in botany and the gannet in zoology.

One used as other

In horticulture, scientific names like Begonia, Dahlia, Gladiolus, and Rhododendron may also be used as common names (written begonia, dahlia, gladiolus, and rhododendron). These names continue their use as common names when the scientific name changes. Azalea was once a plant genus that has now been “sunk” into the genus Rhododendron, although the common name azalea is still used. The reverse situation also occurs when common names are Latinized (and possibly anglicized), irrespective of their source language. For example Hoheria is from the New Zealand Māori "Houhere". A local name may also be adopted unaltered: the genus Tsuga is named after the Japanese "tsugá".

For historical reasons, some common names and 'equivalent' scientific names refer to unrelated species. For example cranesbill is the common name for the genus Geranium, while the common name geranium is often used for species of the South African genus Pelargonium. Again, the gardeners' nasturtium is Tropaeolum but the scientific genus Nasturtium is better known as cress.

Name and rank

Names for plants and animals like rat, squirrel, rose or oak refer to broad categories. By adding adjectival descriptors, such as the combinations brown rat, red squirrel, dog rose and cork oak, common names for individual species have been created and continue to be created. Scientific names express a single classification system, but common names can be used within folk taxonomy to express many systems.

Lists of common names

Lists of general interest

Collective nouns

See lists of collective nouns (e.g. a flock of sheep, forest of trees, hive of bees)

Multilingual, multiscript names

Unlike scientific names common names do not have a universal language or script so it is easy to forget that any global listing, to be understood by all, must be available in many languages and many scripts. There also needs to be confidence, when compiling these lists, that common name synonyms are correctly linked to their scientific referents. See External Links for a searchable multilingual, multiscript plant name database.

A common name which is quite useful in local context can be ambiguous if used more widely. Names like sardine or deer are applied to dozens of different species in English-speaking countries worldwide. Though these two names are perfectly adequate in their original domains of use: (fishing and hunting) in localities where only one such species is known to exist, or is likely to be caught.

Some common names such as "periwinkle" apply both to a mollusk and to a plant.

“Official” lists

For some groups, such as birds in the US, individual species do have official common names. Official lists like this are chosen by a governing body or organization and are usually selected following a set of guidelines. Such names generally have little standing in scientific nomenclature, but they serve a number of purposes:

  • by allowing only one name for a particular organism (or classification category) a common name can capture the precision of a scientific name
  • using one name simplifies the upkeep of modern computer databases

Various strategies may be used to make common names more accessible.

  • where groups of organisms have members that do not have common names then these are sometimes “invented” where none previously existed
  • the structure of scientific names is copied so that all the species in a genus repeat the genus name, so for example if Diospyros (ebony or persimmon trees) is regarded as the "ebony genus", the species are known as red ebony, giant ebony, creeping ebony and so on.

Attempts to standardise common names (insects in New Zealand; freshwater fishes in North America) have met with mixed success, but common names lose some of their unique merits when defined.

In Australia, common names for seafood species have been standardised as AS SSA 5300 Australian Fish Names Standard(AFNS) which contains Standard Fish Names for over 4000 species. Previously fish in Australia were sold under a large number of common names. The confusing variety of Australian common names resulted from: the numerous species Australia has on offer (over 4,000 species of finfish and many more crustaceans and molluscs); local and regional variations in the names being used; some species being known by more than one name; and the same name being used for more than one species.

The AFNS was compiled through a process involving work by taxonomic and seafood industry experts, drafted using the CAAB (Codes for Australian Aquatic Biota) taxon management system of the CSIRO,[4] and including input through public and industry consultations by the Australian Fish Names Committee (AFNC). The AFNS has been an official Australian Standard since July 2007 and has existed in draft form (The Australian Fish Names List) since 2001. Seafood Services Australia (SSA) serve as the Secretariat for the AFNC. SSA is an accredited Standards Australia (Australia’s peak non-government standards development organisation) Standards Development [5]

A set of guidelines for the creation of English names for birds was published in The Auk in 1978.[6] Similarly, a normalised list of French names has been edited and updated since 1993 by the CINFO.

Use in chemistry

In chemistry, official naming of chemical substances follows the IUPAC nomenclature, a convention on systematic names. In addition to its systematic name, a chemical may have one or more common or trivial names (and many widely occurring chemicals do indeed have a common name). Some common names allow a reader with some chemical knowledge to deduce the structure of the compound (e.g., acetic acid, a common name for ethanoic acid). Other common names, while uniquely identifying the compound, do not allow the reader to deduce the structure, unless he or she already knows it. Examples include cinnamaldehyde or morphine.

See also


  1. ^ Conklin, Harold C. 1980. Folk Classification: A Topically Arranged Bibliography of Contemporary and Background References through 1971. New Haven, CT: Yale University Department of Anthropology. ISBN 0913516023.
  2. ^ Yoon, C.K. 2009. Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393061973 ISBN 978-0393061970.
  3. ^ Brickell, C.D., Baum, B.R., Hetterscheid, W.J.A., Leslie, A.C., McNeill. J., Trehane, P., Vrugtman, F., Wiersema, J.H. (eds) 2004. International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. ed. 7. Acta Horticulturae 647 (Regnum Veg. 144)
  4. ^ List of standardised Australian fish names - November 2004 Draft. CSIRO
  5. ^ Overview: Australian Fish Names Standard. Seafood Services Australia
  6. ^ Parkes K.C. 1978. A guide to forming and capitalizing compound names of birds in English. The Auk 95: 324-326. [1]


  • Conklin, Harold C. 1980. Folk Classification: A Topically Arranged Bibliography of Contemporary and Background References through 1971. New Haven, CT: Yale University Department of Anthropology. ISBN 0913516023.

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