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The Condor/Volume 1/Number 6/A Plea for the General Use of Scientific Names


A Plea for the General Use of Scientific Names.

From time to time various persons, presumably intelligent collectors, have asked why we cannot dispense with scientific names of birds and use the English altogether. Such a peculiar proceeding has even found favor with the prophet of all good amateur ornithologists,–Dr. Coues. Mr. Hornaday[1] and Mr. Stephens[2] demand that all birds and mammals be supplied with common names. Their claim seems to be that trivial names are more easily comprehended by the public than scientific names. It has been my experience that Ardea virescens means, to the average person, quite as much as Green Heron. Although some names as duck, sparrow and woodpecker have ideas hitched to them, such concepts are usually worthless. On this point we will speak later.

Another class demanding attention and common names, is the great tribe of half scientists–those who find a pleasure in knowing something of the relationship of animals. They are terrified, however, by scientific names and are content to keep such in a closed "key" or "check-list," knowing the birds by their number as if they were so many prisoners. Why not use the name that every one will know? The scientific names must be learned sometime, thus doubling the work. Why not learn them at once?

Names of Latin form are a necessity for several reasons, so evident that it seems a waste of space to mention them. In the first place they are a necessity because not all people speak one language. Latin being the most universally known is the best language from which to build our handles, graspable by scientists of whatever nationality. Secondly, it is impossible to find enough common names to supply all the species of birds. Hear now what Dr. Allen says:[3]

"As regards the names of species of animals or plants, but a small proportion are ever recognized in any vernacular tongue, because unknown to the average layman. When discovered and made known by science, a vernacular name is often invented for them, as well as a scientific one. Yet many of the most remarkable and familiarly known animals and plants never acquire a name other than the scientific one, compounded of Latin or Greek, which the laity adopt in common with scientists, and never even dream that they are using the technical language of science. Hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and the names of many of our ornamental plants are cases in point."

With many of our American birds we use the generic names as trivial terms. No one has trouble with phainopepla, leucosticte, junco, pyrrhuloxia, merganser or vireo when used as common names; perhaps they look more terrific when printed in italic. If I am not mistaken Vireo and Junco were adopted by a vote of American ornithologists as being preferable to Greenlet and Snowbird.

Another reason for using Latin names is that they show us something of the relationships of animals. Thus if one speaks of a Dryobates or a Dendroica or a Salpinctes, we know nearer what group of species is intended than if woodpecker, warbler or wren is used. That is to say, the scientific is applied with more exactness than the common name.

There is another trouble with trivial names. They are coined by anyone who takes a notion and while not differing so far from scientific names, they do differ in being purely local. The result is that one bird species may have many names, or, that several birds may have the same name. Thus Colaptes auratus has been found to sport at least thirty-six common names.[4] Again the name Yellow Hammer is used for Emberiza citrinella in England, for Colaptes auratus in the eastern states and for C. cafer on this coast.

Mr. Gordon Trumbull,[5] at great pains, has collected the names used by gunners for the various game birds. This book illustrates the great confusion which comes from the use of common names.

It might be possible to have uniform common names for well known birds, but when we come to peculiar forms as Pyrrhuloxia or Phainopepla, we have no common names and the trouble is still worse as we go into Mexico or Africa. Then again even if we found it possible to use English names for all mammals and birds or even all vertebrates, there are still unprovided for hundreds of thousands of invertebrates as suggested by the Rev. W. F. Henninger.[6] Not only have we a host of living forms, but to be consistent we should have to find names for the palæontologist with his thousands of vertebrates and invertebrates.

If, as Mr. Beal[7] has told us, grangers prefer and use scientific names and terms. certainly ornithologists and oologists who pretend to know something of science can use scientific names. I would suggest that we do away with trivial names in our literature and correspondence at least. This would simplify things immensely. Not only would space be saved in faunal lists but in exchanging specimens one would need be familiar with only one set of names. It is extremely annoying to receive a list of trivial names and have to translate them before knowing what species are offered. Ichthyologist, mammalogist, herpetologist, and invertebrate systematists seem to struggle along without the use of trivial names; why cannot ornithologists? If we had a list of common names which were ordinarily recognized, they would be useful, but such a thing is impossible, and why we should advocate the use of such names as sinew, jabiru, limpkin, parauque, grassquit and dickcissel is a fact I do not understand. Scientific are more accurate than, and as readily used when known, as trivial names, in fact, are often preferred. The recognition of both increases, without any accompanying advantage, the labors of memory; common names can never become to any extent so well known as the scientific. These are the reasons for which I advocate abandoning trivial terms.

Richard C. McGregor.

Palo Alto, Cal.

  1. Auk XII, 91.
  2. idem, 194.
  3. J A A Auk I, 303.
  4. Audubon Mag. I, 101.
  5. Names and Portraits of Birds.
  6. Osprey IV, 12.
  7. F E L Beal, Auk XII, 192,