On the use and misuse of common names

It is considered pedantic in everyday conversation to speak of the Jenny Wren as Troglodytes troglodytes troglodytes yet lacking in scientific exactitude if we call an obscure species of the Acari by a common name, and merely facetious to use such names as the Depressed Limpet and the Warty Venus for some of the more common shells. Nevertheless common names often encourage the beginner to take an interest in a group at a stage when scientific names would be formidable, although their use will be later recognised and employed as the anomalies of common names become apparent to the student and as the growth of enthusiasm and interest encourages the effort of understanding. The professional zoologist generally abhors these haphazard and vague terms, whilst many reputable natural history journals of the more serious kind are diffident about using scientific names which will be meaningless to the average reader. The more well worked a group the more common names are in use, and the stability of these seems to be in direct ratio to the length of time a group has received the attention of generations of naturalists; Butterflies, Birds and Flowers are good examples. Occasionally a common name may have a more ancient lineage than a scientific one. If Haliotis must become a nomen nudum perhaps even the professionals may find themselves talking of Sea Ormers rather than using the 'new' Asinina!

But there is another reason why some of the older common names at least, should be kept in beings they enshrine much useful data for the ethnologist, the philologist and for the student of those studies which the 18th. century was wont to call 'popular antiquities'. A forthcoming posthumous volume by the great Cornish Celtic scholar, the late Morton Nance, will have much material and argument based on popular local names of various marine molluscs, and I myself have noted some interesting changes in local usage. For instance in Scilly vrtiere the Edible Winkle is virtually absent, the name Winkle is given to the Thick Top shell, Gibbula lineata (da C.). Since, so it is thought, the Island received cultural influences from the Isle of Man only a few centuries since, it may be significant that a popula¬tion from a land where the Winkle is abundant would apply the name - at first no doubt nostalgically - to an entirely different but very abundant local species. Likewise, if the line of research pursued by the late Dr. Dexter is at all valid, the changes of species and common name which varied from one population to another but which centred around the 'collect¬ing' of shells for food on Good Friday - a custom known in Cornwall as 'trigging' - may well prove important data to future scholars working the same field.

The value of listing, recording and affording scholarly treatment to the common names has long been the practice of students of mammals, birds and, less widely, of fishs those of molluscs are not without their value too and should not be lost.

Stella M. Turk