Common name

Common name

For Wikipedia aspects, see: , , and .

A common name (also known as a vernacular name, colloquial name, trivial name, trivial epithet, country name, or farmer's name) is a name that is in general use within a community (of whatever size or language).

Many of the conventions and traditions described in this article are based on the English language, and thus will not apply to other languages.


The term "common name" is widely used in relation to organisms, but may apply in other areas such as chemistry. When applied to an organism, use of the common name is often contrasted with the use of the formal "Latin name", more properly known as the scientific name of the organism.

In biology a common name may be applied to a single species of organism as a proper noun (e.g. red admiral) or used in a more general sense as a common noun (e.g. butterfly). This is essentially the same as the way we communicate about many objects in everyday speech.

Common names have general appeal because they are easy to remember and pronounce; they also often convey valuable cultural and historical associations, including such things as the language of flowers.

New names of animals and plants are constantly being added to the common name repertoire, but at the same time the older traditional names are falling into disuse. Nevertheless it is common names, not scientific names, that are the major currency of communication about organisms, so it seems likely that they will always be with us.


English Common Names & Scientific Names
Common Scientific
wolf Canis lupus
earthworm Lumbricus terrestris
honey bee Apis mellifera
cone flower Echinacea sp.
daisy, lawn daisy, English daisy Bellis perennis
white oak, Quebec oak Quercus alba
acetic acid ethanoic acid

Folk taxonomy

All classification systems are established for a purpose. Scientific or biological classification is revered because it is a universal system that uniquely denotes particular organisms, and helps anchor their position within the hierarchical scientific classification system. 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.

Folk taxonomy is generally associated with the way rural or indigenous peoples use language to make sense of and organise the objects around them. Ethnographic studies of the naming and classification of animals and plants in non-Western societies have revealed some general principles that indicate pre-scientific man’s conceptual and linguistic method of organising the biological world in a hierarchical way

  • in all languages organisms are placed in five or six groups of graded inclusiveness
  • these groups (ethnobiological categories) are arranged hierarchically into mutually exclusive ranks
  • the ranks at which particular organisms are named and classified is often similar in different cultures

The levels are — moving from the most to least inclusive:

  • level 1, a single all-inclusive name e.g. plant or animal. This is rarely named in folk taxonomies
  • level 2, the folk “life form” e.g. tree, bird, grass and fish. These are usually primary lexemes (basic linguistic units)
  • level 3, the folk generic name. This is the most numerous and basic building block of all folk taxonomies, the most frequently referred to, the most important psychologically, and among the first learned by children. These names can usually be associated directly with a second level group. Like life-form names these are primary lexemes e.g. oak, pine, robin, catfish.
  • levels 4, the folk specific name e.g. white fir, post oak which are secondary lexemes
  • level 5, the folk variety e.g. baby lima bean, butter lima bean.

In almost all cultures objects are named using one or two words. When made up of two words (a binomial) the name usually consists of a noun (like salt, dog or star) and an adjectival second word that helps describe the first, and therefore makes the name, as a whole, more "specific", for example, lap dog, sea salt, or film star. The meaning of the noun used for a common name may have been lost or forgotten (whelk, elm, lion, shark, pig) but when the common name is extended to two or more words much more is conveyed about the organism's use, appearance or other special properties(sting ray, poison apple, giant stinking hogweed, hammerhead shark). These noun-adjective binomials are just like our own names with a family or surname like Simpson and another adjectival christian- or forename name that specifies which Simpson, say Homer Simpson. It seems reasonable to assume that the form of scientific names we call binomial nomenclature is derived from this simple and practical way of constructing common names - but with the use of Latin as a universal language.

Use in biology

Not all organisms have common names; it is generally the most abundant, flamboyant, dangerous and useful - especially those that contribute to trade - that are specially identified.

Origin and function

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. There is therefore a range of naming conventions or house rules; books, periodicals, newspapers and other media develop their own policies about the way common names should be presented.

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. In English, the common name cat is used across the Western world while the name 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. Though these two names are perfectly adequate in their original domains of use(fishing and hunting) and in localities where only one appropriate species is known to occur.

Scientific names and common names

Many scientifically different organisms may have the same common name and one particular scientific entity might have many common names. Scientific names use Latin as a universal language and are therefore the same in any part of the world; 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 their 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


Wikepedia has many plant lists that can be searched by common name. A compendium can be found at but here are some that have general interest:

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 it is easy to forget that any global listing needs to be in many languages and many scripts: there also needs to be assurance when compiling these lists that common name synonyms truly refer to the same scientific entities. 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
  • it is seen as more user-friendly and pleasant-sounding than the Latin of scientific names

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 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 an exhaustive process involving work by taxonomic and seafood industry experts (including CSIRO) and including input through public and industry consultations by the Australian Fish Names Committe (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 Organisation

A set of guidelines for the creation of English names for birds was published in The Auk in 1978.

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.



Spencer, R, Cross, R & Lumley, P. 2007. (3rd edn) Plant names: a guide to botanical nomenclature. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia. (Also CABI International Wallingford, UK.) ISBN 9780643094406 (pbk.).

See also

External links

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