Use & Submission of Common Names


In zoology, the formation of a scientific name for an organism follows a strict set of rules adopted by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. This International Code of Zoological Nomenclature serves to promote the stability, accuracy, and universality of an organism's scientific name. Every proposed scientific name must be unique and distinct from all other names. In this way, every named organism is a distinguishable entity. However, scientific names are not always stable. Rules regulating dates of priority, formation of names and the use of Latin for forming names are some of the reasons that scientific names may change. To add to this confusion, taxonomic studies could dictate that an organism be reassigned to a different taxon, resulting in a change in its scientific name.

In contrast, common names of organisms, while not governed by such strict rules, remain more stable than the scientific names. However, the lack of standardization in common names, which often originate from repeated usage by workers in a particular area, may result in one organism being known by several different common names. Halysidota tessellaris J.E. Smith, for example, is known as the checkered tussock moth in the UK and as the pale tussock moth in the USA and Canada. Similarly, Acarus siro Linnaeus is called the flour mite in Australia and the grain mite in the USA and Canada.

The importance of correctly identifying an organism to a non-scientific community, as well as to fellow researchers, made it apparent that a standardized common name would allow everyone to know what organism was being discussed in a particular locality. In response, several countries adopted lists of authorized common names for those organisms most commonly found in that country, including insects. The need for a common name list for insects became apparent in the United States early in the twentieth century.

In 1903, the American Association of Economic Entomologists (AAEE) formed a Committee on Nomenclature to assure the uniformity of names of common insects; and in 1908, the AAEE published its first list, Common Names of Insects Approved for General Use by American Association of Economic Entomologists. It contained 142 common names. The current revised list of common names of insects and related organisms supersedes all earlier lists published since 1908. The list has grown exponentially throughout its existence. In 1925, 541 names appeared on the list; in 1927, another 42 names were added as a supplement. In 1931, the list had grown to 874 common names, with the addition of another 22 supplemental names. Concomitantly, the Entomological Society of America (ESA) established a Standing Committee on Nomenclature in 1907. At its annual meeting in 1935, the AAEE changed the name of the Committee on Nomenclature to the Committee on Common Names of Insects. In 1940, a list of 1108 common names approved by the joint committees of the AAEE and ESA was published. In 1950, 1294 names appeared on the list. In 1953, the AAEE merged with the ESA, and the increase in the size of the common names list continued. In 1970, another 299 names were added; and in 1978 the list was computerized by ESA Headquarters. At the same time, the name of the list was changed to Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms to reflect the other arthropods and invertebrates included in the list. The edition published in 1989 contained 2,018 names. The final printed edition, published in 1997, added another 28 names to the list. Since 1997, new names have been added to the online database as they are recommended by the committee and approved by the Governing Board. For a comprehensive history of the common names of insects, see Chapin, 1989 (Bull. Entomol. Soc. Am., 35(3):177-180).

The authority of the Standing Committee on Common Names of Insects, including its duties, methods of election to this committee, composition of this committee, term of office of its committee members and its operation is derived from the ESA Bylaws, Article X, and the Society Policy Manual. The Committee on Common Names of Insects consists of nine At-Large members who serve three-year terms of office. The purpose of the Committee shall be to review proposals for common names and recommend names to be used in publications of The Society for approval by the Governing Board.

Authors of manuscripts submitted for publication in ESA publications may use only ESA-approved common names. These publications are the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, Environmental Entomology, Journal of Economic Entomology, Journal of Medical Entomology, Journal of Insect Science, Journal of Integrated Pest Management, Arthropod Management Tests, American Entomologist, Insect Systematics and Diversity, and the various Thomas Say publications.

Rules and Guidelines for Proposing a Common Name

The Common Name Proposal Form for submitting potential common names is available online. The following set of rules has been established to guide an individual in the selection and formation of a common name. The same process and guidelines are used when recommending changes to an existing name.

1. Included species, in most cases, will inhabit the United States, Canada, or their possessions and territories. In special cases, other species may be added.

2. The ESA Common Names Committee will consider proposals for names for currently valid species and subspecies; under exceptional circumstances, the committee will consider proposals for names of genera, but the committee will not consider proposals for higher level taxa.

3. The list of common names is intended to include those insects and other invertebrates commonly of concern or interest to entomologists because of their economic or medical importance, striking appearance, abundant occurrence, or endangered status, or for any other sufficient reason.

4. A common name should consist of three words or fewer, but four are permissible if justifiable. A proposal for a common name should document a stage or characteristic to which the proposed common name refers. Distinctive physical features that well differentiate the species are useful. Other useful descriptive terms may derive from features such as habitat of the species, host associations, biome, life stage and aspect of seasonal life cycle. Specific words used as modifiers (adjectives, adverbs) in a common name should be easily pronounced and generally understandable by a broad public audience.   

5. Most names have two parts, one indicating the family or group, and the other a modifier. In the case of names having two parts with one of them being a group name as given in Section IV, the group name will be a separate word when used in a sense that is systematically correct, as in "house fly" and "bed bug." If the group name is not systematically correct, it must be combined into a single word with a modifier, as in "citrus whitefly" and "citrus mealybug." The modifying part of the name should be based on some outstanding characteristic of the organism itself, its damage, host, or distribution.  

Past convention for common names has generally favored use of contracted forms when two modifying words are used, as in “redfaced” or “broadnosed.” Submissions are now encouraged to consider use of hyphenation between modifying words if the meaning is otherwise obscure, as in "poplar-and-willow borer" and "acute-angled fungus beetle." Hyphenation is also appropriate when the proposed name includes a term that is normally hyphenated, such as "mile-a-minute weevil."

6. The use of parts of the scientific name in the common name is undesirable unless the words involved are well documented by usage as a common name. Common names with words that unnecessarily incite offense, fear or promote negative emotional reactions (e.g., epidemic, murder, invasive) are strongly discouraged. Descriptors of cultures, populations, ethnicity, race, and industries/occupations are generally not acceptable. Common names that include features mentioned in Rule 4 are desired. The use of a geographic descriptor in a common names proposal is generally discouraged and will require additional justification. Geographic descriptors that describe the broadest area of origin of the species are highly preferred.

7. Non-geographic, proper names may be proposed in the nominative or genitive (= possessive) case. Preference should be given to the case in widest usage for that species prior to submission of the proposal. The use of an honorific proper name is limited to cases where the name (1) reflects the species epithet, e.g., "Zimmerman pine moth" for Dioryctria zimmermani (Grote) or Blackburn's sphinx for Manduca blackburni (Butler) or (2) honors the original author of the species, e.g., Banks grass mite for Oligonychus pratensis (Banks).

8. Only in special cases should a species have more than one common name.

9. In petitions regarding taxa warranting special concern in both the larval and adult stage, the preferable name should be one suggested by the appearance or habits of the more important or better-known stage, or the one for which usage has become more established.

10. In all petitions for the adoption of new common names or changes in those previously established, the fullest consideration should be given to past usage and probable future usage. When practical, the opinions of entomologists experienced with the taxa concerned should be obtained before names are proposed. Members who wish to recommend new names or changes in existing names should accept the responsibility for making the necessary investigation. All available documented evidence, both for and against, concerning the need for each proposed name should accompany the petition when submitted.

11. All words should be in lower case, except for proper nouns that are traditionally capitalized in English.

Committee Procedures

Proposals for consideration by the committee should be submitted via the online form:

1. Online proposals are sent to ESA headquarters and then forwarded to the Committee Chair.

2. Upon receipt of a proper proposal, the Committee Chair shall forward copies of the proposal to each member of the Committee.

3. Each Committee member shall review the submitted materials and vote for or against the proposal. Votes should be returned to the Chair within two weeks of receipt.

4. The Committee Chair shall tabulate the vote of the Committee. For a proposal to be forwarded to the membership for comment, at least 7 of the 9 Committee members must vote in favor of the proposal. Conflicts of interest (e.g., board member proposing a common name or being a family member) are assumed to be yes votes. Where the committee consists of fewer than 9 members, a minimum of 70% yes votes are needed to pass (6 “yes” votes from 8 members, 5 from 7, 5 from 6, 4 from 5).

5. A rejected proposal shall be returned to the submitter along with a summary of any comments by Committee members.

6. Proposals approved by the Committee shall be forwarded to ESA headquarters for distribution to the ESA membership. The comment period shall extend for 30 days after publication. Any ESA member disapproving a proposed common name is requested to submit objections and evidence opposing the proposal to the Committee Chair in the 30-day period after publication.

7. If substantial objections to the proposal are received by the Chair, the entire Committee shall reconsider the case and make a final decision. At least 7 of the 9 members of the Committee must vote to override the objection. Committee member conflicts of interest or absences will follow the procedure outlined in step 4.

8. Recommended names are submitted by the Committee to the Governing Board for final adoption. Final adoption is by majority vote of the Governing Board.

9. Notice of final approval or rejection shall be distributed to ESA members.

10. A summary of adopted common names shall be distributed to ESA members.

Appeals Procedures

In the event that a common name proposal is rejected, either by the Committee or by the general membership, and the author wishes to resubmit his proposal, specific procedures are to be followed:

1. The submitter must resubmit the proposal to the Common Names Committee using the standard form and must address the written comments separately. The proposal will be treated as an original proposal.

2. If the reason for the original rejection was other than not completing the proposal forms correctly, then the submitter should address the specific reasons for rejection, i.e., the insect is not economically important, the common name is being used for another insect, the proposed common name is misspelled, the scientific name is misspelled, the insect's distribution is outside of the designed area of acceptance, or the common name is composed incorrectly.

3. The Executive Committee of the Governing Board will serve as a neutral final arbiter in the appeals process.

Consideration of Groups of Common Names in Use by Scientific Societies and Entomology-related Organizations

Common names involving North American insects and related arthropods have been developed and promoted by some scientific societies and professional organizations. To promote better coordination of common names related to North American arthropods, under certain conditions groups of names used by these organizations may be considered for acceptance by the Common Names Committee and incorporated into the Common Names of Insects Database.

Proposals to consider groups of common names should initially be developed in coordination of the board of the society/organization and at least one member of the current Common Names Committee. Suitable group submissions can be made without the requirement of individual proposal forms developed for each proposed common name. However, any proposed list of names for formal review in this type of submission should be in accordance with the following guidelines:

  1. Scientific names are confirmed to be correct according to the latest accepted taxonomy;
  2. The names proposed had been agreed upon by a scientific society or professional organization related to entomology that has a formalized process for establishing common names;
  3. There is general consensus among workers associated with the taxa that the names are acceptable (e.g., competing common names are not in wide use);
  4. Names do not duplicate existing common names in the ESA database;
  5. Where an existing ESA formalized common name exists that is different from that developed by the outside society, then the name for that species must be included in an individual proposal for consideration by the CN committee;
  6. Proposals involving groups of common names will be considered and processed along the Committee Procedures guidelines posted at the Entomological Society of America web site (as delineated above). Each name within a group submission will receive an individual vote by the Common Names committee.
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