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Standardized Common North American Butterfly Names

Swallowtails Whites Coppers Blues Nymphs 1 Satyrs Skippers 1
Parnassians Sulphurs Hairstreaks Metalmarks Nymphs 2 Danaids Skippers 2

Introduction and Explanation

Common or vernacular names for living things are as old as language itself. A common name is just that - it is common - the term most frequently used among a people group by which something is identified and thus understood. Here we are concerned with the common names of North American butterflies and skippers. Historically, butterfly common names came into being when a certain group or type of butterfly was simply noticed by local people and dubbed as a such and such. These local names then became regional in use and eventually a set part of that region's or nation's language. In that scheme, only certain notable (flashy or pestilent) species gained enough attention to be given their own special identify.

Since about the late 1970's, butterfly common names in much of North America have been coming into existence by direct fabrication. These names are referred to as common names but in actuality they have been contrived by individuals or groups specifically to provide a name in the vernacular where only a scientific name was previously in use. This has happened for several reasons. Some have mistakenly thought that scientific names were too hard for "common" folk to learn and thus non Latinized epithets were fabricated in English sounding words and phrases. Many had been used to common name usage in birding and wanted the same system of nomenclature now that they had become interested in butterflies. Others just liked them better than scientific names which seemed to always be in a state of flux - especially at the genus level. They saw common names as potentially or actually more "stable". But as it turns out, common names have probably changed more than the scientific ones at the species/subspecies level over the last 30 years.

Everyone it seems, including us here at TILS, has their own opinions and preferences about common and scientific names. Regardless of personal preferences, common names, old historical or modern contrived ones, are here to stay. Therefore it is in the interest of everyone to have these names documented so that everyone (in North America) is speaking the same language so that taxa are universally identified and thus understood. How should the standardization of these names be determined?

In compiling such a list it only seems right that the first and foremost determining factor should be that of natural usage-frequency among the populace. After all, this is primarily what common names have been all about. Thus, historical common usage is the first factor that will be used in qualifying a name for this standardized list. The second factor will be that of original description. Many authors have not only given scientific names to new taxa but also common names. The third factor will be that of non usage. An examination of the list will show that many taxa do not yet have a fully accepted common name. This is because a fabricated name has not been in usage long enough or among all elements and factions of Lepidopterists to constitute standardization. One individual or group's declaration of some name does not mean it is the name everyone wants to use. (Even a name first issued in an original description can be overridden by popular usage of another name over time.) A common name is one the common people want to and do use. The names on this list are "standardized" only through public usage among all lepidopterists. Common usage will also mean that in some cases two names qualify as a taxon's standardized name. For example, a name used by everyone in Canada if different from what is used in the United States is by usage the standardized common name for Canada and the other equally so for the United States. This extends also to multi-continental taxa, i.e. Mourning Cloak and Camberwell Beauty for Nymphalis antiopa.

At TILS our position is that common names, like scientific names, should be available for each subspecies. The subspecies that comprise a single species are not "sub" in relation to each other. Each is a unique and equally basic component of a given species. A subspecies is only sub (as in below) in technical scientific rank (on paper). In nature, no "subspecies" is below or above any other intra-species component. In fact, a species does not exist outside of these components - even if there is only one that is currently known - the nominate subspecies, i.e. Nymphalis antiopa antiopa.