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What is a Vernacular Name?

By DM Gutierrez
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Animals and plants are known by several different names. The scientific names for organisms are typically derived from Latin, while the common, or vernacular, name is generally in the regional language. The vernacular name of an animal or plant is the most widely-known term, while the more colloquial nomenclature, sometimes called the “farmer’s name," for organisms is less well-known outside a specific location.

A vernacular name often includes a descriptive term, either related to appearance or behavior. The howler monkey, or Alouatta caraya, gets its name from the extremely loud cry it emits, while the clouded leopard receives its name from the cloud-like spots on its gray or brown hide. The electric eel, or Electrophorus electricus, is named for its ability to deliver shocks, and the walking stick insect (Diapheromera femorata) is named for both its behavior and appearance.

Organisms may also be named for the region in which they are found, such as the Colorado River toad (Bufo alvarius) or the plant known as the Rocky Mountain garland, also known as Clarkia hybrids. The deer or black-legged tick’s vernacular name refers to where it is commonly found, attached to deer, as well as its physical markings. Similarly, the cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) gets its vernacular name from its cactus habitat. Some species are given their vernacular name for entire continents or countries, like the African gray parrot (Psittacus erithacus) and the English sparrow, or Passer domesticus, which is also known by the common names of house sparrow and town sparrow.

In the world of mammals, one animal may go by many different names. For example, the cougar (Felis concolor) is also often called the mountain lion, the puma, and the catamount. Skunks, known as Mephitis mephitis, often also have the vernacular name of polecats or civet cats. The African wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) is sometimes known as a water buffalo or a gnu. The domesticated dog (Canis lupis familiaris) is known by many different names: hound, mutt, mastiff, and cur.

Some plants and animals have vernacular names based on the person who discovered, developed, or bred them. This is especially true of flowers and trees like the Abbott pink, a bluebonnet developed by Carroll Abbott. Organisms are sometimes named in honor of someone besides the discoverer or creator. Goffin’s cockatoo (Lophochroa goffini) was named by its discoverer in honor of a close friend. Several recently discovered species of insects have been named after celebrities like comedians Laurel and Hardy, rock musician Mick Jagger, and billionaire Bill Gates.

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