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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.