Common names can be marvellous but do all species need them?

Chimney Sweeper, Maiden’s Blush, Peach Blossom. British moths have some fantastic English names. There’s also the Drinker, the Conformist, the Sprawler, the Phoenix, and the Saxon.

Such enchanting names are at the root of the ever-growing popularity of moth trapping. They capture our imagination and stick in our minds. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by creatures with names like Brindled Beauty, Plumed Prominent, Feathered Footman, or Marbled Minor?

But not all are blessed with a common name. The majority of British Lepidoptera are known only by their scientific denomination. Many of these don’t exactly roll off the tongue (try Schrekensteinia festaliella or Ptycholomoides aeriferanus). Some are even longer than the insect itself. So why do so many species lack an English name? Is this something we should rush to rectify?

Captivating common names add to the magic of moths.

It’s usually easy to see how our moths got their names. Many conjure up colourful imagery. Others are wonderfully descriptive. The wing markings of the Heart & Dart, Silver Y, and Figure of Eight are exactly as it says on the tin.

Sometimes the resemblance is more fanciful. In its sombre markings, you may be able to make out the shawl that gave the Old Lady its name (squinting helps). Whitish scales give the impression that the Miller’s wings are dusted in flour. The Mouse Moth? Well, not only is it small and brown, but it also has a habit of scurrying to safety when disturbed (despite perfectly functional wings).

In some species, the caterpillar was deemed most remarkable. For instance, the crustacean-like larva of the Lobster Moth. Or the Goat Moth, named after its pungent odour.

Life histories are frequently embodied in common names, perhaps revealing the foodplant (Oak Hook-tip, the Campion) or its favoured habitat (Sandhill Rustic, Marsh Dagger).

But the best names are the most whimsical. The Uncertain, the Confused, and the Suspected – each tricky to identify, the names of these moths never fail to raise a smile.

Centuries in the making

The names of British moths are drawn from an unfamiliar vocabulary. Brocades, daggers, wainscots, lutestrings, footmen – curious remnants of a bygone era.

It’s easy to picture the lavish rooms that inspired these names. Delicately-patterned fabrics featured heavily, no doubt. It’s a fascinating insight into the grandeur of early entomologists, waited on by their footmen and lackeys.

I had assumed it was eccentric Victorian entomologists who had dreamt up this menagerie of moth names. In fact, many were christened much earlier. In a fascinating article (British Wildlife, October 1998), Peter Marren revealed that most of the names were first used in Georgian times.

Some of the earliest ones he uncovered include Ragwort Moth (now the Cinnabar), London Royal Leopard (Scarlet Tiger) and my absolute favourite, Tilman Bobart’s Straw Moth (Brimstone Moth). All coined by James Petiver in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

By 1767, a rather familiar lexicon had emerged. In ‘The Aurelian’, Moses Harris speaks of Large Yellow Underwing, Mottled Umber, Burnished Brass, Angle Shades, Spring Usher and Scarlet Tigers. Interestingly, Petiver’s Ragwort Moth had now become the Pink Underwing. Other quirks include The Snout, known then by the somewhat less catchy The Snout-Egger Likeness. And – wait for it – what we call a Convolvulus Hawk-moth was simply the Unicorn (on account of its horned caterpillar, of course).

The clue is in the name: the English names of most macro-moths were coined centuries ago.

Some continued to evolve. But by the end of the 18th century, British moth names had largely stabilised. Most were exactly as we use them today.

A parallel nomenclature

Just as the rich vocabulary of English names was developing, a more formal naming system emerged.

During the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus attempted to describe the known natural world, assigning an informative two-part name to thousands of species (including hundreds of European moths).

His system was widely adopted as it helped remove ambiguity: the scientific name is both specific and unique. It is also hierarchical (each species is within a genus, which is within a family, and so on) – useful for efficient taxonomic classification.

At the time, Latin and Greek were used by scholars across the world. These ancient languages continue to represent a neutral ground, free from the political issues that would arise from using a modern language as a basis for universal communication.

It’s a great system. But one that’s maybe not that relevant for ordinary folk. Most of us have little need to converse with people from other countries about a certain species.

The descriptions contained within scientific names are also inaccessible to many of us. Appreciating these requires knowledge of dead languages – something few people still have. (My ‘C’ in GCSE Welsh is about the closest I come…)

Thankfully, there’s a handy cheat sheet for British Lepidoptera. Maitland Emmet’s 1991 book is invaluable for explaining the meaning of their scientific names.

Once translated, scientific names can be just evocative as common names.

But there are more fundamental problems than the need to translate the meanings of scientific names.

Long. Impenetrable. Intimidating. Unpronounceable. Impossible to remember.

These are the typical complaints made by beginners about ‘Latin names’ when they first peer into the realm of Britain’s smaller moths (been there, got the t-shirt).

Such reactions are understandable. Some names are just a convoluted orgy of consonants. Roeslerstammia erxlebella, Diloba caeruleocephala, Oegoconia deauratella: just a few that I still haven’t quite got my head around saying out loud.

However, with those few exceptions aside, I’ve actually found myself becoming quite fond of scientific names.

They were a struggle at first, sure. Took some getting used to. But I think most of the barrier is psychological.

Get past it and they’re usually not too bad. Some are rather charming, dare I say. Hofmannophila pseudospretella sounds vastly more interesting than Brown House-moth. Said aloud, the specific epithet of Elachista apicipunctella has a delightful bounce. Calliteara pudibunda is another of my favourites (aka Pale Tussock).

Now, the most important thing to remember about scientific names: there is no single correct way to pronounce them.

Scientific names are a jumble of different languages (mostly dead ones at that). As such, attempting to attach pronunciation rules simply doesn’t add up. Just say them in a way that makes sense to you (this will also make it easier to reproduce the correct spelling).

A moth by any other name…

“What’s in a name?” – one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. Spoken by a naïve Juliet in Act 2, deluding herself that names are just a meaningless convention. And we all know how that turned out.

There’s no question. Names are extremely influential.

The 800 or so larger moths in Britain have both English and scientific names. But it’s exceptionally rare to find moth-ers who have plumped for using just the binomial names.

Unlike most scientific names, common names are easily etched in our minds. Who wouldn’t remember finding sharks, leopards, or tigers living in their garden? The joyous vocabulary is also sprinkled with curious anachronisms. An unexpected source of charm; vital for a group that’s all too often plagued by poor PR.

I have little doubt that if it weren’t for their common names, Britain’s macro-moths would be worse off. Fewer people would record them and they would be the focus of less conservation action.

There is one other advantage of English names. Stability.

In theory, common names are more dynamic than scientific names. But in practice, field guides and checklists tend to remain faithful to previous publications. Once established, English names can be remarkably static.

In contrast, scientific names can be irritatingly unstable. Taxonomists frequently decide that a species actually belongs in a different genus, or that a group of species should now be spread across several new genera. Important work, of course. But annoying nevertheless.

The law of priority means even the specific epithet is not sacrosanct. This states that if an earlier name for a species is uncovered, this should now be used.

When I started trapping, I learnt a species under the name Depressaria pastinacella. It later became D. heraclei. Now it’s D. radiella. Its common name – Parsnip Moth – has remained unchanged throughout.

Micro-moths: unnamed, unknown, unloved?

Only around 10% of the 1600 species of micro-moth found in the UK have an English name.

With a bit of determination, this lack of common names shouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier. But it is a barrier nonetheless. And one that tempers enthusiasm for micro-moths.

If we want as many people to care about wildlife, then surely, we want to eliminate barriers that prevent people from engaging with it?

So then. Should more micro-moths be given common names?

Alright, I might have lied. The fact is all micro-moths already have common names. Ian Heslop gave all the British Lepidoptera an English name in his 1947 work (some of which were based on names published in the 1800s). This was loosely used as the basis for Jim Porter’s checklist in 2002. Minor refinements were made by Jim Wheeler in 2017.

They might as well have not bothered.

Proudly proclaim to an experienced lepidopterist that you’ve discovered a Brown-spot Flat-body or an Ash-coloured Sober and you’ll be met with a blank face.

Is there something inherently wrong with these recently invented names? No, not really.

Some of them are apt. The genus Coleophora are ‘case-bearers’. The first part of the name tends to relate to the foodplant or habitat (Woundwort Case-bearer, Downland Case-bearer, etc). Intuitive and useful.

Others I find less agreeable. The Caloptilias are termed ‘slenders’. So, ok, the wings are thin but that’s true for lots of micros. Surely giving a nod to the distinctive resting position of the adults would be better (tripods?), or perhaps the feeding habits of the larvae (leaf-rollers?). The tineids are all ‘clothes moths’. Nonsensical. Only a couple might chew through your favourite jumper (the vast majority wouldn’t survive indoors; many only eat fungi and decaying wood).

Perhaps I’m being a tad unfair.

I am very glad these efforts have been made. It’s an important starting point, if nothing else.

But I think there are a couple of reasons why they haven’t really been adopted. It is early days. The names of the macros were quite literally hundreds of years in the making. Often they were known by several (rather different) names before a favourite emerged. In my view, modern efforts to name the micros have been flawed by remaining overly faithful to the previous suggestions. This has stifled creativity.

The other issue is the sheer number of species. One and a half thousand is an awful lot of new names. Even more for those who have known the species by their scientific names for a lifetime.

So, what’s the way forward?

Common names should be achieved, not assigned

I think we need an informal, open dialogue. The best way to get the ball rolling would be to start inventing our own nicknames – and then sharing them with others. If they resonate, they might just stick.

Interest in micro-moths has only taken off in the last decade or so. Now is the perfect time.

Unpublished micro-moth common names that I’ve heard others use, plus some I’ve dreamt up.

Collectively, it will be much easier to dream up imaginative common names.

Vernacular names will probably only materialise for the more charismatic families. That’s ok. Maybe only some micros really need a second name.

Previously suggested names might be a useful starting point, but a clean slate is also fine. It doesn’t matter if there are lots of common names floating around for each species at first. That’s how the macros got their marvellous names.

Those who are fond of the scientific names will always be understandably reluctant to embrace any new-fangled English names. That’s completely fine. The established scientific names should continue to be used alongside any newly conceived names (vital when submitting records, for instance).

Change is possible. People only begun using English names for the pterophorids (plume moths) fairly recently, after Colin Hart included them in his authoritative book on the family back in 2011. The c.40 new names have subsequently been adopted in checklists and field guides.

Progress is always going to be gradual.

Nom de plume: Pterophorus pentadactyla, aka White Plume Moth. I also like fairy plume or white feather plume. Image: Sarah2 / Shutterstock (RF)

So yes, more micro-moths should have common names.

But they deserve sublime poetic names, just like their larger cousins. This isn’t something that can be rushed.

The scientific name of each species gets assigned by one person. Common names really ought to be the opposite: an honour bestowed by the people.

Inventing our own creative nicknames is the first step.

New August 2021: I’ve set up a dedicated webpage and created a Google Form for people to save English name suggestions or nicknames they already use so these can begin to be collated.

14 Replies to “Common names can be marvellous but do all species need them?”

  1. Yes, yes, yes to the vernacular for micros….but there’s a but! I’ve been fascinated by moth names for some time now. I love the scientific as well as the common names but there’s something about the history of a common name that makes it so special and that’s where, sadly, I think the boat has sailed somewhat. For me, a moth named now (unless a newly found species!) doesn’t hold much meaning for me but I can imagine that 200 years from now someone somewhere will be fascinated about how moths were named in the 21st century. Great post.

    1. Thanks for this, Nicky. Yes, I do agree that the history of these names helps make them so enchanting. But I guess every common name has to start somewhere!

  2. A multi-faceted post that provokes many lines of thought. My thanks.
    As a mothing UK expat who learned the vernacular names of the macros three decades ago, upon starting to delve into micromoths I used only the scientific option, as Hislop was somewhat frowned upon (to be honest, derided) by most of the people I met in the mothing communities across the UK.

    Now, with a lot more international mothing under my belt, I am totally used to the scientific binomial approach – indeed would be lost without it, despite the problems of so-called stability that the Code allures to and sets as an overall vision and will no doubt achieve centuries down the line, but for the time being leaves current end users of the taxonomy scratching their heads every time a taxon is reviewed – so the vernacular stability is indeed most helpful. The international dimension also brings awareness of how other cultures regard moths – the Japanese and Chinese have vernacular names for pretty much all moth species, whereas in South Asia, local vernacular names in the relevant local language (e.g. Hindi, Bengali, Tamil……) reflect the awareness of iconic or pest species, with vernacular names in English used only sparingly, because in most cases non have been used / proposed. Only in the last few years have vernacular names for Indian Sphingidae been proposed, never mind the micros! I agree that vernacular names are of use, especially for education and getting people to re-connect to nature (through moths!).

    But a word of caution (well, a few words) – names should be easy to remember and provide a good pigeonhole to prompt identification – so the rhubarb & custard approach for O. semirubella is fine (!!) – notwithstanding the issue of misleading names regarding relatedness. Let me take some UK macromoth examples – Dark Arches, Buff Arches, Light Arches, Black Arches, Least Black Arches, Kew Arches, Green Arches. All are “arches”, so they’re related, right?…. sadly not so closely related…. these are (in the same order) Noctuidae (Noctuinae), Drepanidae, Noctuidae (Noctuinae), Erebidae (Lymantrinae), Nolidae (Nolinae), Noctuidae (Glottulinae), Noctuidae (Noctuinae) – four different families from two superfamilies and only one genus shared (Apamea for Dark Arches & Light Arches)! Perhaps one of the long term challenges of naming the micros should be overcoming potentially confusing names regarding taxonomic relatedness….

    A last word on “overcoming” the scientific system – why is it that amateur gardeners and kids generally seem to have no hang-ups about using scientific names (plants and dinosaurs respectively)? Indeed, kids often seem to revel in the challenge of learning the names of dinosaurs. I agree with you – it’s a state of mind. Personally, I have limited brain capacity, so I will try and use the internationally used binomial system as a priority. The luxury of the vernacular is great, brain power permitting. I may have to await the day one can plug in a few terabytes of extra memory before I can remember all the names in binomial version, never mind learning all the vernaculars as well!

    1. Great to get an intentional perspective; many thanks for adding your thoughts, Roger. Knowing the binomials is certainly extremely useful. I’ve learnt these for many common macros as they often pop up in academic papers, etc. There’re also many fantastic ID resources that aren’t in English (and makes moth-ing elsewhere in Europe much easier too!).

      The point about common names referencing taxonomic relatedness is an interesting one. Personally, I don’t think it matters if some common names are ‘misleading’ in terms of relatedness – that’s the job of scientific names. One example is Campaea margaritata (Light Emerald) which is not an emerald in the taxonomic sense (Geometrinae). But they are all green and superficially similar, so I think having a common name that links their morphology is useful for recorders.

      Re. kids and dinosaurs. I have a feeling this boils down to familiarity (and the relative simplicity of some dinosaur binomials). Young kids hear teachers say the names or hear them in a movie. Repeating and learning them is easy. But put written names of less familiar dinosaurs in front of the same kids and I doubt they’d be able to use them confidently. That’s my theory anyway!

  3. Ornithologists adopted English names decades ago while also keeping the scientific names as references in scholarly publications.

  4. Vernacular (in our case, English) names for insects are catching hold for many groups besides the Lepidoptera. Of course, Odonata and Coleoptera come to mind, but there are even attempts to establish vernacular names for ants in English speaking countries, and now also in Spain. Some of these names in relatively recently published regional field guides to ants I find a bit dry and rather mundanely descriptive rather than fun and memorable, but others such as “muscleman ants” for an Australian genus with bulging, muscular femora both make sense and are amusing. (However, it ought to be said that since all worker ants are female, gender neutral bodybuilder ants might be better. 🙂 )

  5. Thanks for the book recommendation & sorry we didn’t get to catch up at the moth recorders meeting. Keep blogging, I know its time consuming but your posts are fab 🙂

    1. Yes, sorry we didn’t get a chance to chat, Vikki – was a fairly hectic day. Hopefully, we’ll bump into each other at something else before long.

      Really glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the posts. I’ll do my best to keep them coming (when other commitments allow) 🙂

  6. The term ‘vernacular’ is rather at odds with the idea of imposing or standardising terminology. Vernacular language is the language as it is spoke by the people. Wild flowers (at least the more conspicuous ones) and birds have genuinely vernacular names because these are things that people have encountered and interacted with in their daily lives for centuries. Micro moths lack(ed) vernacular names for the good reason that they have always tended to escape the notice of the majority of people. I therefore think that your suggestion of allowing micro moth names to evolve over time through actual usage makes a lot of sense. Those that are vivid (I rather like your Cello Tortrix!) will stick and those that are not (Brown-spot Flat-body? Ugh!) are unlikely to do so.
    I have read the suggestion that the use of vernacular names will encourage more people to get interested in the study of micro moths but I am rather sceptical of this. The main barrier is not really the names but the fact that they are often quite tricky to identify and – until relatively recently – there were few readily accessible, good ID guides available. The publication of a number of excellent books and the development of good web-sites such as UK Moths and various regional web-sites will do much more in my opinion to get more people into micro moths than any attempt to impose vernacular names on them.

    1. Hi David, yes I’m aware of the book now (it was only published after I wrote this post). I’ve been meaning to order a copy. I’m sure it will make a fascinating read.

      The title is ‘Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers’ if anyone else is interested.

  7. I recently noted that one of the County Moth Recorders had had to remind contributors that he would not accept vernacular names from the Heslop list for the smaller moths. These insects don’t have accepted English vernacular names so PLEASE don’t use them.

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