ISSN 1188-603X

No. 109 August 6, 1995 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2


From: Dr. William A. Weber <>

There is a rejuvenescence in the common names craze in this otherwise advanced scientific age of biodiversity, and it has spread like a virus into the cryptogamic field. Even the conservative and highly literate Swedes have felt it necessary to coin names for lichens and mosses! I think that, for the sake of our science, we should seriously ask ourselves whether this is necessary, useful, or detrimental to the image of the science of botany.

About fifty or sixty years ago there was a publication called Standardized Plant Names, which attempted to bring order to the chaos of so-called "common names". Just as is happening now, people were inventing names for plants that had none, and there were lots of plants going under different names in different places, just in America. What this book was trying to do was to produce a parallel nomenclature to be used by non-professionals. M. L. Fernald, who was responsible for Gray's Manual, attacked this anti-intellectual pursuit (what I now call the "dumbing" of America), and the book died a quiet death. In 1942, writing about the discovery of a certain Elephantopus in Virginia, he wrote, in a footnote in Rhodora, p. 367: "We thus added another to the Virginian series of elephants and their feet. We already had the Bare-footed Elephant (E. T. forma rotundatus) and the Carolina Elephant's-foot! We were adding the Woolly Socked Carolina Elephants-foot. These names, like 'Foul-Scented Love-grass' and others in Britton and Brown and many of the crudely formed absurdities in the new Standardized Plant Names, are not colloquially used. Ours are intended as jokes; the others, unfortunately, were not. It is often said, however, that the greatest jokes are unintentional."

Here are a few points to ponder.

  1. Botany is a science, and it is high time that we should help it gain a little respect.

    The magazine, Natural History has just published a special issue on dinosaurs. All of the jawbreaking scientific names are there, but not a single "common name" for a dinosaur, as far as I can tell, in the volume. Sandwiched in between dinosaur articles, a short one of two pages highlights the rare vascular plants of Colorado's High Creek Fen. Not a single scientific name! The March issue of Smithsonian featured a cover illustration of a sunflower, Wyethia scabra, growing on the sand dunes of eastern Utah. The inside cover identified this as (no scientific name whatever) Sandpaper Mules Ears! Mules ears is a name given to the genus Wyethia, but only applies to those species with big basal leaves; the figured species has no basal leaves.

  2. Truly common names are those that have originated and evolved with a lay culture.

    These are legitimate but hardly ever restricted to a single genus or species, especially over a country or continent. To make up vernacular names by translating the scientific names or by concocting "creative" or "imaginative" ones only creates a parallel nomenclature that assumes the lay public is justifiably incapable of learning or pronouncing the real names.

  3. Scientific names make it possible for everyone, anywhere in the world, to communicate with each other about organisms.

    Vernacular names make it difficult or impossible. Americans travel the world so easily nowadays; if I go to Sweden, even if I want to use vernacular names, I first must learn the language! The same goes for Russia, India, China, and Japan. Vernacular names lead to scientific and literary isolationism.

  4. Scientific names are no harder to pronounce than contrived vernacular names; the public is not or should not be encouraged to be, scientifically illiterate.

    Children have no trouble with scientific names, evidence the dinosaurs.

  5. Scientific names have meaning and relevance to our language, especially considering the great contribution of Latin and Greek to our common words. Hence, they have educational value.

    Our science is almost alone in the wholesale manufacturing of vernacular names to please what we perceive as an illiterate public.

  6. Sooner or later, we will find that there are more than one vernacular name for a species.

    A national committee will then be set up to delete all of the alternative names and select one as a standard. This is human nature, but it in fact is an attempt to create a set of unscientific names parallel to the scientific ones. A major attempt to standardize common names failed for the vascular plants, and will fail again if applied to cryptogams.

  7. Let us instead, make a real attempt to educate our public, and give them credit for some intelligence, as other disciplines (medicine, engineering, astronomy, etc.) do.

    I think it is time for scientists, amateur and professional, to get serious about taking botany out of the playroom and kindergarten. As a start I intend to prepare the next edition of my floras by deleting all the vernacular names that are newly contrived or that do not represent epithets arising from use within a culture. There are a very few real common names for lichens: rocktripe for Umbilicaria species is one. Let's leave it at that, and not try to educate the public and their intellectual sights just the least bit and help the general educational process in America.

The best riposte I know regarding common names was written by Lloyd Shinners, in his Spring Flora of the Dallas-Fort Worth Area. He said:

"One of the most tiresome and irritating remarks I have to listen to over and over, runs: 'Oh, don't give me those terrible Latin names; give me something I can say and understand.' People who mouth such jawbreakers as chrysanthemum or asparagus without batting an eye are simply being childish when they say they cannot manage Latin names. That is what those two words are, without a single letter changed....For the Standardized Plant Names manufactured according to arbitrary rules by bureaucrats, largely by translating the Latin binomials with varying degrees of accuracy and inaccuracy, I have no use whatever. They are an insult to intelligence and a crime against good taste. There is absolutely no necessity for concocting fraudulent 'common names' for plants which the 'common man' often cannot tell apart in the first place. Anyone with serious enough interest to want to distinguish species and varieties to the same degree that a botanist does certainly ought to be serious enough to use botanical names. Those who refuse to accept the disciplines of Science are not entitled to its benefits. The botanist has enough hard work to do without being asked to put up with a lot of artificial gobbledy-gook in the form of bogus vernacular names. I have no patience with the you-do-all-the-work, give-me-something-for-nothing attitude which lies behind demands for 'common' names. Genuine popular names are often vivid and interesting. A study of them would be fascinating, but it belongs in the realm of folk-lore, not of science."

Not all the common name frenzy is coming from the applied scientists and lay public. Janice Glime has been publishing a number of papers listing new common names for bryophytes (Should mosses have common names, parts 1-7. Evansia vol. 6-9. 1989-1992). She never answers the question but acts as if the answer is yes. Roland Moberg, in Svensk Bot. Tidskrift 89:129-149. Lichens with Swedish Names-second edition: "Swedish names of 900 lichens are listed. Almost half of them are new; they have been created in close collaboration with several colleagues. The list is to be regarded as the official list of Swedish names of lichens." He also lists a set of ten rules for the construction of such names (recalling Linnaeus' Critica Botanica). In the new California Lichen Society Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 1. 1995, Sylvia and Stephen Sharnoff, who are co-authoring a coffee-table book covering 700 species of lichens of North America, solicit names "for the benefit of beginners, interpretive naturalists, and resource managers.... Since many names for the genera and species will need to be invented, we are hoping for creative assistance from anyone who is interested in vernacular names--and from anyone who is simply interested in preventing the publication of names that he or she might consider to be unattractive, unimaginative, or inappropriate. We are maintaining a computer database of all the published and suggested name that we can find."

Vernacular names for lichens have been manufactured by Nearing in The Lichen Book, but they were so ludicrous that none of them caught on. Harold Zim invented common names for lichens in the Golden Book of Lichens, using the generic name coupled with descriptive epithets for each species, thus creating "hybrid" scientific-vernacular names. The most hilarious instance of manufactured vernacular names for mosses is Anne Johnson's Mosses of Singapore and Malaysia (1980). Common names for some families are: Ruined tooth moss family (Rhegmatodontaceae), Horizontal tooth moss family (Syrrhopodontaceae), Pouched hood moss family (Calymperaceae), Pott Moss Family (Pottiaceae), and Signal leaf family (Sematophyllaceae--from semaphore?). Species names are worse: Sullivant's outer net white moss, White-sheathed horizontal tooth moss, Spoon-shaped two-row moss, Obliquely inserted folded-fruit moss, Dubious bladder moss (Vesicularia dubyana, named for Duby, nothing to do with dubious), Uncovered nipple moss, and Hairy nipple moss.

I myself have been honored (?) by a manufactured name for one of my eponymous species--Saussurea weberi. The Forest service has dubbed this Weber's Saw-wort. Saussure would roll in his grave for that one!

I suppose we will have common names manufactured in France, Italy, Germany, and the rest of the "civilized world", and that there eventually will have to be a branch of the United Nations set up to produce a concordance. There is one place in the world where I have been helped by vernacular names--Japan. On an International Phytogeographic Excursion we were supplied with field handbook with indices of vernacular and scientific names. The Japanese assistants, unfortunately, rarely knew a scientific name, so when we asked them to tell us the name of the plant, they referred to the index, found the vernacular name and the page reference, and located the page that gave the scientific name and often an illustration!

William A. Weber
University of Colorado Museum


Douglas, George W., Jim Pojar, Del Meidinger, and Karen McKeown. 1994.
Rare vascular plant collections from the St. Elias Mountains, northwestern British Columbia. Canadian Field-Naturalist 108(4): 391-396.

ABSTRACT: Two taxa new to British Columbia (Chrysosplenium wrightii and Aphragmus eschscholtzianus) and nine others new to the St. Elias Mountains, British Columbia are reported. In addition, 25 other rare taxa from the region are discussed.

[Note: According to the paper, the vernacular name of Aphragmus eschscholtzianus (Brassicaceae) is "Eschscholtz's Little Nightmare." - AC]

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