Recently my friend Kent Fothergill launched a series of posts
ranting about discussing the difficulties associated with common names. The inaugural post featured the insect I show here, Dectes texanus, a member of the family Cerambycidae (longhorned beetles) that has gained attention in recent years as an occasional pest of soybeans, especially in the upper Mississippi Delta (Tindall et al. 2010). As is usual, when an otherwise obscure little insect suddenly begins costing somebody money people feel compelled to give it a common name. Rather than the uninspired “soybean stem borer” or ironically Latin-ish “Dectes stem borer” monikers that seem to have taken hold for this species, Kent jokingly suggested that if people were serious about common names, this insect should actually be called the “Texas prick” as a direct translation of the scientific name.¹
¹ Actually, I couldn’t find any reference to the word “Dectes” as a Latin word or “prick” as its English translation. Rather, my copy of Brown (1956) lists dectes as a Greek word meaning “biter.” I think this must be what LeConte (1852) had in mind when he first coined the genus name, since he mentions among the characters that define the genus several features of the mandibles. If that is the case, then to be accurate the alternate common name for this beetle should be the “Texas biter.” However, that name causes nothing like the snicker that “Texas prick” elicits, and since common names are bound by no rules whatsoever, I choose levity over accuracy and stick with Kent’s proposed name.
Being the pedantic, anal retentive, taxonomist-type that I am, it may surprise you to learn that I actually don’t have a problem with common names. To be honest, however, I will admit that this is a fairly recent change-of-mind for me—for many years I was a die-hard “scientific-names-only” type of guy. I not only thought common names were useless (for all the reasons listed by everybody who opposes them), but I even refused to learn them—my geek passive aggression, I guess. In the years since I started this blog, however, I’ve not only grown less oppositional in my stance, but have actually learned to embrace common names for what they are—comfortable names that don’t intimidate the taxonomically disinclined. Labels is all they are, and if one common name can refer to several species or several common names refer to one species, it’s not the end of the world. Common names aren’t meant to replace scientific names—how could they? Scientific names fulfill a special set of needs for a select group of people (i.e., to reflect phylogeny), and despite its flaws the Linnaean system of nomenclature that has been in use for the past several hundred years has served this purpose better than any other system devised. The reason for this is because genus and species names also provide a convenient and relatively easily memorizable system of labels that allow scientists to actually talk about organisms in a way that makes sense. This is an advantage that the Linnaean system has over any numerical phylogenetic system, no matter how much more precisely the latter can indicate phylogeny. For scientists, scientific names, in effect, serve a dual purpose. Non-taxonomists, however, don’t need dual purpose names—they just want easy-to-say and easy-to-remember labels, and if common names engage more people in a discussion about nature and its inhabitants then I’m all for it.
This is not to say that I will ever give up scientific names. I love scientific names, and it is my goal in life to know as many of them as possible—even synonyms (I know, sick!). I also think that scientific names are not as scary as some people believe. Boa constrictor, for example (yes, that is both its common and scientific name), or gorilla (Gorilla gorilla)… or Dectes stem borer! To help bridge the gap, I have taken to mentioning, as a matter of practice, both the scientific name and—when one exists—the common name for the insects and other organisms featured on this blog. This applies not only at the species level, but families and other higher taxa also (e.g., “jewel beetles, family Buprestidae”). It is my way of talking science in a way that welcomes the interested lay person. Considering the increasingly anti-science din in our country by creationists, climate change denialists, knee-jerk GM critics, etc., I think the more we can get scientists and non-scientists comfortable talking to each other the better off we will be.
The insect featured in this post was found and photographed in a field of cultivated soybeans in northeastern Mississippi. It’s identification as Dectes texanus (other than its association with soybean) is based on the face being only slightly protruding and the relatively large lower lobe of the eye. There is one other species in the genus, D. sayi, also broadly distributed in the U.S. but distinguished from D. texanus by its distinctly more protruding face and small lower eye lobe (giving the impression of “tall cheeks”). This species, too, is known to bore in the stems of soybean but is much happier doing so in common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) (Piper 1978). The species name—sayi—was given to honor the 19th century entomologist Thomas Say, regarded by many as the ‘Father of American entomology.’ This species also has been called “soybean stem borer” by some, which doesn’t do much to alleviate concerns about common names referring to multiple species. I am reluctant, however, for reasons of respect, to use the common name for D. sayi that results if one uses the same rationale used by Kent in coining his common name for D. texanus…
Brown, R. W. 1956. Composition of Scientific Words. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 882 pp.
LeConte, J. L. 1852. An attempt to classify the longicorn Coleoptera of the part of America north of Mexico. Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia (series 2) 2(1):99–112.
Piper, G. L. 1978. Biology and immature stages of Dectes sayi Dillon and Dillon (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 32(4):299–306.
Tindall K. V., S. Stewart, F. Musser, G. Lorenz, W. Bailey, J. House, R. Henry, D. Hastings, M. Wallace & K. Fothergill. 2010. Distribution of the long-horned beetle, Dectes texanus, in soybeans of Missouri, Western Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Journal of Insect Science 10:178 available online: insectscience.org/10.178.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013
47 thoughts on “The Texas Prick”
As someone with zero background in science (or Latin or Greek), what I find most difficult about learning scientific names is that I’ve never heard them pronounced. Simple names like Dectes texanus I can work out, but most scientific names end up being just collections of letters to me when I read them. They might as well be numbers. If fact, because of the years I spent working in inventory control, I’m accustomed to thinking in part numbers. I’ve found the Hodges numbering system helpful in working out a rudimentary understanding of moth taxonomy.
As others have commented, I don’t sweat pronunciation (another change from my younger days). Speaking Spanish (derived from Latin) is a big help for me, but remember I don’t spend everyday actually verbalizing all these names and hearing them from colleagues. My coworkers know the scientific names of just the pests that we deal with, but the vast majority of scientific names I ‘know’ I’ve only read or written and never actually said or heard. I just decide for myself what seems to me the best and easiest way to say it and that’s how it “lives” in my brain. When I meet other taxonomists, there is always a little “dance” as we get used to each others unique pronunciations.
As a non-specialist in insects and a lover of languages (I even took a couple of years of Latin), I love this posting. You make an easy-to-read, yet compelling case for using both common and scientific names. Where else could I find someone who uses terms like “taxonomically disinclined” to describe folks like me?
Thanks Mike. The more positive feedback I get from non-specialists, the more confident I become that I’m actually doing something useful here! 🙂
What a great blog entry! I just printed a copy and tossed it into my Intro to Taxonomy lesson folder. I’ll be adding a few things from your post. Thanks, Ted!
Just don’t teach them about Say’s prick!
This is a blog to treasure – thanks Ted
Thank you, Chas!
Not many of my specialty group, ants, have common names, but (red imported) fire ant always seemed both logical and comfortable to me. Something I don’t get is what’s up with those folks who insist on calling it RIFA (even pronouncing it as word that sounds a bit like reefer) instead of good old-fashioned “fire ant”?!
Acronoyms as words seem to happen anytime an insect has any regulatory/import significance – EAB now instead of Emerald Ash Borer, ALB instead of Asian longhorned beetle, etc. We even use them here at work: CEW, FAW, TBW, CRW (see if you can guess what those are).
The other reason to embrace common names is sometimes scientific utility. In ornithology, the formalized common names often have greater stability than the Latin binomials.
This may be true if the higher taxonomy is already quite stable (as in birds), but this is rare in most insect groups. Birders also have the benefit of critical mass – with so many people saying the names they gain mass that makes it difficult to alter them. Maybe someday we’ll get there.
Ah, but is the higher taxonomy stable? I think historically well researched groups like birds tended to get shunted around a lot more than neglected groups of arthropods. This was part of the impetus to formalize the common names. The bird world has certainly seen some major upsets in the past few years, with molecular methods having demonstrated some surprising affinities…
Well, I don’t know birds, so maybe this isn’t true. Still, critical mass helps – for every person able to identify insects to species, there are 10, 100, 1000? interested in birds 🙂
The major difference with birds isn’t only that there are a ton of birders, it’s that the American Ornithologists Union, a respected, professional organization, is recognized as the official arbiter of common names. Virtually all birding organizations, including the American Birding Association, and all the major field guides, follow AOU decisions on common names religiously. Since there is a respected authority on the matter, the matter is effectively settled. The Dragonfly Society of the Americas has taken on the same roll for Odonata, which seems to be well accepted, although it did not do so until the popularity of “ode watching” versus collecting reached a certain level. This seems to be a pattern that repeats through any taxonomic group that newly becomes popular with the “watchers” which I’m sure Ted and others commenting on this thread will have noticed.
Exactly. The same is now happening with tiger beetles and ground beetles—although an official arbitor is still lacking, the number of people involved in coming up with names is fairly small and well-connected, while “rogue namers” are virtually non-existent. Tiger beetles also have the interest of government and NGOs from a conservation standpoint, both of whom really like to use common names in their documents and are, thus, quick to accept whatever the taxonomists can come up with for a particular species.
I couldn’t agree more with your ethics; it pains me to see sooo many scientists give the cold shoulder to the non-scientificly inclined population. It shows lack of self security when one feels the need to rise above another without equal knowledge. We’re all the same species for crying out loud! As for taxonomy’s sake: it’s at no risk of being replaced, as you stated. Love it.
Thanks, Jon. I think many people have just never heard the discussion framed in any way other than scientific names versus common names, not really appreciating that both are useful.
Good outside perspective. I agree that you are right in most cases (hopefully). My analysis must be over inclusive in this statement. But because I have been proud in my knowledge before (and quickly got over it), I often detect this same “proudness” in certain scientists; I could be more careful with finger pointing, though. I see this in religion and science also; often people pick a side and live to disprove the other w/out first looking for parallels between the two.
I’ve lived long enough to learn that indignance never helps you win an argument 🙂
I very much agree with this post and the above comments. I frequently hear people state that is just as easy to learn scientific names as it is a common names, so you might as well just learn the scientific names (the “right names”). This is absolute nonsense in my opinion. Learning scientific names is literally learning words in a foreign language which usually have zero meaning to me. How it could possibly be as easy to learn foreign words as it is a name in my native language? That’s not to say that I don’t understand the value of scientific names and obviously it is worth the effort in many cases. Regarding Marvin’s comment, a good resource for pronunciation of names is “The Biologist’s Handbook of Pronunciations”, available as a free download here: http://archive.org/details/biologistshandbo00jaeg
A little ironic that I botched the sentence about my native language. That should read “How could it possibly…”
Thank you. I downloaded. Now, if I’ll take the time to refer to it…..
Thanks for the link, Aaron – very cool (although I already see a few pronunciations that I don’t like). Yes, the most arrogant thing a scientist can say is that scientific names are just as easy to learn as any other name. NOT! However, as I said in my reply to Marvin I don’t sweat pronunciation anymore – that takes a whole lot of pressure off if everybody would do the same.
Working at a Nature Center, I find it hard to be people enthused about an insect with only a scientific name. My favorite beetle is a good example Pasimachus sp. This is a great beetle; activity running around gardens, giant jaws, sometimes a purple iridescence, but when you have a hard time pronouncing it’s name or have to call it “a type of ground beetle.’ People don’t pay attention. Do you have an common name suggestion to help visitors want to look for it in their own gardens?
Anna – Since there seems to be no accepted English name for these cool beetles, why not have a contest among your visitors to give it a good descriptive, but catchy name. You might first suggest one that is not so great (e.g., curve-jawed beetle), stimulating folks to think “I could come up with one better than that!”.The result could perhaps even be submitted for formal recognition…
I don’t recommend the name include the phrase “ground beetle”. When my youngest son was around 10, I told him that this and some other carabid beetles were called ground beetles. Completely unimpressed by this, his response was, “You’re just making that up because you don’t know their real name”. He knew full well that his father is an entomologist, but was still incredulous that anyone would apply such a mundane sounding name to these beetles. 🙂
Thanks, James, for the suggestion of having a contest to give the beetle a common name. That sounds like fun. Does Pasimachus mean curve-jawed? If that is the meaning then the scientific name makes since, and will be easier to share with visitors. I like finding out what the scientific name means; it helps me remember it.
Thanks others commentors for your ideas and encouragement to be confident when using latin names.
A quick search of my Greek dictionary yields a meaning something like all-weapon (pasi-, all or universal; machos, weapon, sword, battle), probably in referenxce to those ferocious lookign mandibles.
I just made up curve-jawed because I though it sounded a bit lame and was not a translation of Pasimachus.
Surely the rationale behind Terry Erwin’s use of “Warrior Beetle” for the genus.
Decide what pronunciation you like, practice it in your head a few times, then don’t blink as you rattle it off. You can explain to anybody who would presume to correct you that even the most learned scientists can’t agree on pronunciation of Latinized names.
Terry Erwin, a world expert in ground beetles, is calling beetles in this genus ‘Warrior Beetles’ with a leading adjective that generally is a translation of the specific epithet (e.g. ‘Square-necked Warrior Beetle’ for Pasimachus quadricollis). I can’t think of a better name than Warrior Beetle!
Good stuff Ted. Personally, I’m a fan of both Latin and common names. Latin names show relationships, and help with precise scientific discussions, and common names work better for conversational natural history. Could you imagine having a chat about coyotes and saying Canis latrans every time? I also hate it when things don’t have common names, and often will dig for old names, or make one up that seems appropriate.
As for Latin pronunciation, I think the great Willis Jepson had it spot on with his recommendations. He said that pronunciation wasn’t at all important, so pick a way, use it consistently, and say it with conviction. And if someone presumes to correct you – a knowing smile is the appropriate response. 🙂
Glad to hear somebody else sees the value in both. Great quote by Jepson—my attitude exactly! I would add that the next time somebody corrects a person for calling a non-hemipteran a “bug” rather than an “insect” in casual conversation, congratulate them on their recent learning of this very basic fact.
Good post Ted and I agree that Say’s Prick would be reprehensible. Actually, Texas Prick sounds a bit bigoted to me and like it wouldn’t go over well when explaining why you wanted to sample in a Texan’s soybean field. ‘Texas’ is supposed to be derived from a variety of Native American dialects for ‘friend’. The ‘Friendly Prick’ sounds like a disease vector or an oxymoron. Maybe the ‘Friendly Nipper’ would be better given Dectes.
I’m in the strange position of having to generate over 300 common names for tiny arthropods that no one in the general public can see, or ever has seen. But landowners and bureaucrats don’t react well to Latin binomials, or so I’m told, and the mites have become an important component of a large scale biodiversity survey. I’ve had a couple names knocked back already, like the Double-warted Nightgown Mite (now the Twin Buttes Mite). Close to a literal translation of the binomial, but apparently warts and nightgowns were too scary a combination for graziers.
I ran a contest for common names as part of a workshop last December and got a couple of good suggestions and at least one keeper: The Slow Eruptor (for Nothrus [Greek for sluggish] anauniensis [Anaun is a volcano in Kamchatka]).
I vote this the most hysterical comment of the New Year!
Twin Buttes Mite is okay, but I might find it hard not to intentionally call it the Twin Butts Mite!
I had the realization recently that the purpose of Latin names is as an indicator of precision.If I say “bug”, you don’t know for sure whether I mean a true bug or a creepy-crawly in general, which might be fine in casual conversation. If I say “hemipteran”, you instantly know exactly which I mean. It’s like error bars for speech.
At the recent Bugshot in Belize, Caves Branch Lodge owner Ella mentioned how when she makes up common names for insects found there, she likes to include “royal” in the name, as this seems to go over best with the workers, who then take pride in the specialness of their fauna, instead of just squashing them.
“Error bars for speech” – great analogy!
Common names can be a lot of fun to make up. I used to work for an importer of aquarium fish and we were constantly creating names for new additions to the industry. The interesting thing was that rare or expensive fish sold better under their scientific names which indicated those hobbyists were more serious about the hobby. Basically, the more of a geek you are the more you care about the scientific ends of things. 🙂
My favorite home-made common name is “Buzzard Signal Fly.”
Call me King Geek!
But buzzard is actually correctly applied to hawks of the genus Buteo only, but has been incorrectly applied to some New World Vultures (especially Cathartes aura). I suppose the error bars are pretty substantial on this one!
Ha—but “vulture signal fly” just doesn’t have near the ring that “buzzard signal fly” has!
Another advantage to common names—anything goes!
I think “vulturine signal fly” is pretty fun!
This was a great blog, with an intriguing title (although I can’t help but hear Beavis and Butthead laughing in the background..)! I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 20 years training customs officers, wildlife enforcement officers and police on the identification of animal products. A key part of this training is to convince them of the validity and importance of scientific names. These groups can be pretty resistant to scientific “mumbo-jumbo”. But the reality is that scientific names are critical for law enforcement because they are (normally) legally binding, whereas common names are not. For the most part I have found that officers understand the importance, and it time many will start to learn and use scientific terms with enthusiasm. The interesting thing is that over time I have developed a greater appreciation for common names. The challenge is that for much of this sort of training you are focussed on polyphyletic commodities like “leathers” or “ivory”. I was somewhat surprised when I wrote my Guide to the Identification of Precious and Semi-precious corals that I ended-up organizing the chapters by common names and not taxonomically. It just made much more sense that way. As you noted above, the use of scientific names and common names should be complimentary. There is no competition.
Sounds like you’ve had an interesting career!
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