People search using common names more than scientific names

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In the post on urban ants several commentators questioned my use of common names.

I rarely use common names when talking about ants with fellow scientists & naturalists. I don’t see the point in vague and shifting terms when everyone in the room understands the precise taxonomic names. Rather, that I include common names in some posts is a matter of audience.

Consider the following search term data from the Google Keyword tool:

People who are most likely to need a guide to urban ants (hint: they aren’t professional myrmecologists) are liable to arrive at my post via search, and they aren’t going to be searching with the Latin names. Common names are strictly a practical matter here.

13 thoughts on “People search using common names more than scientific names”

  1. I cant see why people would complain about using common names on a blog. Here in the UK we are lucky as a number groups have ‘official’ common names so confusion does not arise when using them but even when this is not the case using scientific names can be seen as excluding those with less knowledge and put people off. The whole point of blogging is to reach as many folks as possible.
    Ignore the silly comments and keep using common names 🙂

  2. “People search using common names more than scientific names”

    Hahaha! You don’t say!
    It obviously all depends on your target audience and so on. I guess you sort of straddle between the science folk and those who want to see great pictures and perhaps find out interesting details about the life and times of various ants.

    For me, scientific names are basically useless and almost entirely unmemorable. What I really like is finding out what the scientific name actually means and what it refers to. Alas, that information becomes slim long before you reach “species”.

    1. Use of common names only is a recipe for confusion. Depending on where you are in the world, “Daddy Longlegs” can mean:

      1. A Spider.
      2. An Opilionid.
      3. A Fly.

      I don’t begrudge people who use common names locally, as they can be easier to remember. But people who think globally about biodiversity end up using the more universal scientific names as a matter of necessity. Common names are simply too tied to local dialects to be broadly useful.

      Plus, once you use scientific names frequently enough they become second nature:

      Tyrannosaurus rex
      Boa constrictor
      Echinacea

      See? No common names there, and I bet you knew those.

      1. Strangely enough, I wrote about the Daddy Longlegs thing just yesterday! I certainly agree with everything you say, although I’d never heard Echinacea. Why? Because I know almost nothing of flowers and, more importantly, I’m not “endemic to eastern and central North America” (Wikipedia).

        It’d be really hard for me to use scientific names frequently enough. That’s partly why I like to know what they mean, I can connect Echinoderm with Echinacea and know it’s spiny in some way. It can become descriptive in a similar way that common names so often are and start telling a story rather than just being some annoying old language.

        Yeh, when I say “basically useless” I really mean that they usually mean approximately nothing to me and there’s no reason to remember it or people around who would know what I’m talking about. I’m mostly interested for the Latin itself because a friend and I find etymology an interesting subject down the pub.

  3. We don’t need to abandon scientific names, but we need more, specific, common names. For the exact reason you raise.

    1. I think the really important thing to do is to *include* the scientific name, just to make sure that people can figure out exactly what animal you are talking about with a given common name.

  4. Michael Suttkus, II

    I thought of a serious comment after my silly one!

    I know that odontate scientists have come up with an array of invented “common” names for the world’s dragonflies and damselflies, as a way to make the group more accessible to the public. A quick search online suggests they have worked to some extent. The invented names are now in fairly wide circulation. Are there any similar projects for other groups of insects?

  5. I’d be interested to know how “graphic” the comparison of “Formicidae” and “ant” would be.

    Other well known ones, Azalea, Chrysanthemum, Archaeopteryx, Streptococcus … and the list goes on.

    But, I am sympathetic to wanting to know the meaning and/or origin of Latin names, one reason why I cringe a bit at (but accept) the “arbitrary combinations of letters” that certain people like to coin for their new species.

    1. “The imported wildflower we call Star of Bethlehem today was once called Sleepydick.”

      I’m a mature, adult man. That’s why I’m not laughing at all.

    2. Of course it gets further complicated when the scientific names change and the common name remains the same (blame the taxonomist). Or worse, when the scientific name changes but the old scientific name becomes the common name (see the debate about Drosophila versus Sophophora and try to get 1000’s of people to switch usage!)

  6. As mentioned, including the common name with scientific name in a blog, web site or online anywhere is nice, adding location-specific zones and photos is nicer when using ones favorite search engine. The majority of homo sapiens obviously do not have a formal, in depth higher education.

    I’ve tried searching online using the key words “black ants” yeah right! With locality, it’s kinda like trying to find a needle in 5 haystacks instead of 20 or more. Regardless, the search is educational,

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