What is a Common Name?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A common name is a term other than a specific epithet or scientific name which is used to refer to an organism. For example, “human” is a common name which refers to Homo sapiens. Common names tend to be easier to say and remember than scientific names, which is why they are so appealing; after all, everyone can remember “African Elephant,” but Loxodonta africana is a bit trickier to keep in mind, let alone spell.

African elephant is the common name of Loxodonta africana.
African elephant is the common name of Loxodonta africana.

Common names do come with some distinct disadvantages. For starters, unlike scientific names, they are not standardized, which means that the same common name may be applied to multiple organisms, or a single organism may have a plethora of common names. This can lead to confusion, whereas using a scientific name makes the identity of an organism under discussion very clear.

A common name can also be extremely broad, which may be a disadvantage as well. For example, trees in the genus Quercus are referred to commonly as “oaks,” but there are hundreds of trees in this genus. By just using the term “oak,” people avoid making a clear distinction, and this can be problematic. Different oaks grow in different areas, and exhibit different characteristics, and the use of a broad blanket term ignores this issue. Some attempts have been made to address this with more detailed common names, like California oak, black oak, and live oak, but these terms are not consistent or perfect.

The derivation of common names varies. Common names like cat, dog, and sheep have been around longer than the specific epithets for these organisms, and many of these names have ancient roots. Some modern common names are derived from scientific names, or vice-versa: narcissus, dahlia, and rhododendron are all common names, as well as the names for specific plant genera. In some cases, common names have been deliberately engineered to create a memorable name for an organism, and others have been refined from existing common names.

In some cases, an organism does not have a common name. This doesn't necessarily mean that the organism isn't common, merely that the organism is not well known to humans, well used by people, or considered valuable to people. In fact, many organisms without common names play vital ecological roles, they just haven't been harnessed in agriculture or daily life, so people are not familiar with them. Newly discovered organisms also tend to lack common names until one can be settled upon.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I think that having a working knowledge of Latin is a real bonus if you are interested in both scientific and common plant names. This kind of information may not be strictly necessary unless you work in a related area, but it adds to your general knowledge.


Reading this article reminds me of something my older sister used to do that drove everyone crazy. When ahe was a young teenager she got a book given that had endless lists of common names, with their scientific matches alongside.

This sparked a mini obsession with using as many as possible, as much as possible!

Instead of asking what was for dinner she'd say 'are we having Cynara cardunculus (artichoke) with that delicious looking piece of Artiodactyla suidae (pork)? It was kind of funny at first, but got tiresome pretty quickly.

The final straw for my father came when our slightly deaf grandmother came for a visit and Jody talked endlessly about Felis Catus. Gran thought it was a new neighbor rather than the family pet.

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