Birds, Leps, Observations & Generalities - the images and ramblings of Mark Skevington. Sometimes.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Vulgar Vernaculars

When it comes to vernacular names for moths, I have come to realise that I am a complete hypocrite.

When I first got interested in moths, and started acquiring literature and seeking on-line references (which were virtually non-existent back in 1999) I quickly realised that the larger moths traditionally classed as 'macros' had long-standing and commonly used vernacular names (i.e. as covered in Skinner's guide: everything after the butterflies from December Moth onward, plus the 'honorary macros' - Swifts, Cossidae, Burnets, Limacodidae and Clearwings). Coming from a birding background, the use of vernacular names didn't register as being anything but normal. I had never thought of Parus caeruleus as being anything but Blue Tit, so why try to learn the scientific names of all the moths when there are perfectly good and easy to learn vernacular names. I also realised that the smaller moths, the 'micros', generally didn't have vernacular names apart from some of the ones that had received more attention over the years (typically Tortrixes, Pyralids and Plumes) and some that had become household or agricultural pests. No matter, if no vernacular existed I could quite easily learn the scientific name – ie the only name in use. This was made all the more straightforward by the fact that available literature, in particular the Bradley 2000 checklist, and the recording software MapMate generally concurred on which moths had which vernaculars, and which moths had none. And so it has been that for well over a decade I have been happily mixing vernaculars and scientific names during conversations, recording, e-mails, blogging etc etc. I will always call a Gold Triangle a Gold Triangle, and a Nematopogon swammerdammella a Nematopogon swammerdammella. Even if it is a mouthful.

So what about this hypocrisy?

On several occasions over the years I have come across individuals, some being well know individuals in the mothing world, who insist on using scientific names for all moths including those which have long-standing vernaculars. These people always struck me as being elitist wankers. Don’t talk to me about catching your first cerasi of the year, but I'm all ears about your Common Quakers. Of course, just like in birding there will be occasional reference in conversation about species groups, like Phylloscs and Orthosia, but that's different (isn't it?). These people often cite the universality of the scientific name as justification for its preferential use. Bollocks. Blue Tit is still Blue Tit, but it is now Cyanistes caeruleus. This is largely due to the unfortunate continued existence of meddling taxonomists. And yet, when it comes to the micros without vernaculars I find myself being similarly annoyed about the burgeoning preferential use of 'new' vernaculars instead of the long-standing and widely used scientific names. In this scenario I find myself pitying the individuals who are unable to get their head around using roman characters in a string to form a word which they can't remember or pronounce. I fully realise that this is hypocritical, and quite possibly makes me an elitist wanker.

Porter's 2002 checklist of vernaculars for micros is not new, and to some extent tries to revive earlier failed attempts at the same thing. If widely adopted, there are loads of new epithets to learn: Pygmys (or Pigmys where misspelled on some websites), Ermels, Bent-wings, Smudges, Groundlings, Conches, Bells, Nebs, Twists, Shades, Slenders, Buttons, Drills, Knot-horns ……

But there is a more relevant point. The only reason I learnt the scientific names for micros in the first place was due to there being no wide-spread vernaculars in use or adopted in publications. The latest Butterfly Conservation publication on the status of micros does not use the 'new' vernaculars, the popular publication Atropos does not use them, and MapMate is still generally in balance with the Bradley 2000 Checklist (with a few exceptions like the annoying Garden Grass-veneer for Chrysoteuchia culmella). If everyone starts referring on their blogs, lists and records to Cock's-head Bell, New Oak Slender and Reed Smudge without also using the more familiar scientific names (Zeiraphera isertana, Caloptilia robustella and Orthotelia sparganella respectively) then quite frankly they may as well not bother as the majority of readers/recorders won't know what they are on about.

The watershed moment will be the publication of the new BWP Guide (hopefully out soon). I fear that there is every chance that this will follow the precedent of 'dumbing down' as set by the Waring/Townsend guide to macros, where apparently people were incapable of learning what the reniform stigma, costa, and median fascia are (etc). If the new guide incorporates the 'new' vernaculars then I suspect we will all have some learning to do whether we like it or not. If the vernaculars are not incorporated, then I see no reason for any individuals or websites to continue to advocate them.


Steve Gale said...

Skev, I find myself agreeing with all that you have written. Are we hypocrites? Maybe, but at least we are open to making that accusation about ourselves. I also think it morally gives us the right to call other people hypocrites...

Stewart said...

I like it Mark. Were you standing up with a red cross painted across your face with that one ! Hehehehe.

As a newcomer, I have just started getting my head around remembering the commoner species by latin name. The problem is, there are so many and they are so infrequent it really does take me some getting to grips with. For example, I look at my little annual garden report and see, say, Elachista atricomella and I have no idea what that looks like in my head. I have to go to my own photos for it to come back to me. Maybe things will improve with practice.

Now using the same theory, I have no problem in remembering what a Masked Shrike, Ruddy Darter or Chequered Skipper look like.

Its just that Latin is a different language, names or not, and its difficult until you become 'fluent' in it...

Mapmate will save the day...

Skev said...

Yes Stewart - a personal Crusade agains the hoarding masses of verncularites (is that a word?).
Understand your point Stewart, and I well remember catching small moths and having no idea where to start because I hadn't as yet attained the knowledge of structure/jizz versus family groups. It was even harder then as there were very few micros on the newly created UK Moths website at the start, though the Yahoo Groups forum was picking up and very helpful.
But does calling them Elachista or Dwarf make any difference to that learning process? You've still got to remember what the thing looks like and the vernaculars don't necessarily help in that respect. If the Elachistidae were called Fluffed-up Arses it might give a better idea. In fact 'Double White-banded Light Brown Fluffed-up Arse' seems a very good descriptive vernacular for Elachista subocellea, much better than Brown-barred Dwarf (seeing as the bars/bands are whiteish, not brown).
There is also the anomaly of existing names alongside new names that don't match - so anyone learning what Pygmys look like might have no idea what a Rose Leaf Miner looks like.
Believe me, when it comes to languages I am effluent in all of them. If I can learn scientific names (even if mis-pronounced) - anyone can.
Either way, as I said I suspect in the long-term it will be me and all who went before that will have to adjust if the new book uses the new vernaculars - either that or there will a prolonged period of old and new recorders not knowing what each other are on about!