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Popular Names

The popular, common, colloquial, "trivial" or vernacular names of butterflies are a treasure-trove for the linguist but of no interest to the natural scientist.

First of all, only a few species prominent in the particular region have received common names at all. For instance, in West European languages there will be no vernacular name for a species that occurs only in eastern Europe, like Microzegris pyrothoe.

Secondly, there may be several different vernacular names for one and the same insect. They are apt to vary in different regions of the same country. Gozmány's seven-language dictionary of animal names lists not less than sixty-two German common names for the Large Cabbage White (like 'Buttervogel,' 'Fule,' 'Mehlfresser,' 'Milchdieb,' 'Plackfisel,' 'Raupenschisser') most of which are strictly regional and certainly not part of the average German's vocabulary.

Thirdly, the same vernacular name or very similar ones may apply to animals of different species, even belonging to different families. Pieris brassicae and Pieris rapae – and sometimes all whites – are both called 'Kohlweißling' in German. The 'Kleiner Heufalter' ('small hay butterfly') is Coenonympha pamphilus, a satyrine, while the other 'Heufalter' all are pierids. Common names never take the systematic relationship into account. They are just names, not definitions of the animal's place in the context of all living beings.

Fourthly, it is virtually impossible to determine which vernacular names actually are in common use. Many of those that abound especially in the German literature may be nothing more than the whim of the author who invented them, with nobody ever following suit. Thus it is hard to imagine that anybody should ever have called the Arran Brown (Erebia ligea) 'Waldhochgrasflurweißsprenkel-schwärzling,' cramming the fuscous ground color plus the white marks on the hindwings plus the vegetation of its forest habitat into one word, even adding that the grass must be high. The common name that is actually common is just 'Milchfleck.'

In America, there is the general feeling that every butterfly should have a common name, perhaps because Americans do not care for Latin stuff. So authors of field guides regularly give almost every butterfly they include a common name. Many of them overlap, but there are species which thus acquired a handful of competing common names. The record holder seems to be the nymphalid Phyciodes tharos which has accumulated a dozen of them, from 'Pearl Crescent' to 'Drappled Melitaea'. It is impossible to determine which of them is the correct one, there being no correct one. They have no validity outside the manual that promotes them. If it is a good and widely used one, the name will have more weight. To discourage the arbitrary coinage of ever new common names, the American entomologist Robert M. Pyle has initiated a project to arrive at a set of fairly standard common names. Presumably as a first step toward that goal, a list of all common names of North American butterflies that have ever been used or proposed has been compiled by Jacqueline Y. Miller in 1992.


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