What's in a name?

June 2020
Powerful Owl sitting on a branch, Australia

I am sure I am not alone in occasionally having to stifle a giggle at some of the common names bestowed on the species we share the world with: Boring Millipede Polyzonium germanicum, Lazy Cisticola Cisticola aberrans, Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko Uroplatus phantasticus, Wunderpus Octopus Wunderpus photogenicus, The Suspected Parastichtis suspecta, Hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, Powerful Owl Ninox strenua. I could literally do this all day, there are just so many great names to choose from.

Every species of course has another mysterious and aloof alter ego: its scientific name. Although they may not be so approachable (unless you are a confident Latin speaker), these scientific names have a story to tell. They can give you big clues about a species, often hinting at colour, habitat or behaviour. To truly understand scientific names of course you need to be a proficient geographer, linguist and historian. The roots of many names include reference to place, others borrow words from Ancient Greek and a whole host of other languages, whilst some contain an element of egoism; named after people (some arguably more deserving than others).

The value however of this binomial system, famously developed by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus during the 18th Century (building upon the work of Gaspard and Johann Bauhin), is consistency and order. When you use the scientific name of a species, you unquestionably and definitively know which species you are talking about, and so does everyone else. So when the Lazy Cisticola turns out to have previously unappreciated ambition and the rallying cry is heard to rename it accordingly (Industrious Cisticola? Diligent Cisticola?), everyone will know they are still talking about the same old Cisticola aberrans. It is of course beholden on me to point out that, well, yes scientific names do sometimes change too: ask any botanist, or entomologist, or mycologist, or ornithologist, or mammologist…

Taxonomy (an Ancient Greek word, obviously) unites the binomial naming system with the classification of species, using shared characteristics to organise them into the familiar groupings of genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom. Again the scientific name can give us insight to where a species sits in the grand interwoven web of life, and particularly who its closest relatives are (whether it sees them at Christmas or not). In those two words there can be a fantastic amount of culture and history. As an aside, there are also some fantastic scientific names out there, however mature or otherwise your sense of humour.

Knowing the name of a species as well as learning about how it lives its life is an important part of building a connection with it. Without this connection we may be less inclined to notice or even care if a species disappears. As a conservationist I can’t help but be aware that scientific names are not always welcoming, which is perhaps why more and more species are being given common names. Of course these names can be incredibly misleading. A recent zoom pub quiz round of Shrew or False was a useful reminder of this: Giant Otter Shrew Potamogale velox (not a shrew), Painted Treeshrew Tupaia picta (not a shrew), Chequered Elephant Shrew Rhynchocyon cirnei (not a shrew), Common Shrew Sorex araneus (that one is a shrew).

So I thought I would dedicate a bit of space to some of my favourite alternative regional names for a few British bird species.

Common Shrew among moss and twigs, Sussex
Long-tailed Tit close-up, Sussex
Northern Wheatear standing upright in short grassland, Sussex
Bullfinch close up, Sussex
Sedge Warbler singing on a willow twig, Devon
Nuthatch on a rotting log, Devon
Western Osprey in flight, Costa Rica
Corn Bunting singing from a shrub, Georgia

One of our smallest birds seems to have been blessed with the largest number of names: Feather Poke, Huckmuck, Jug Pot, Poke Pudding, Oven-bird, Rose Muffin, Fuffit, Bumbarrel, Pudding Bag. It is none other than the Long-tailed Tit Aeithalos caudatus. Whilst many of these names seem suggestive of people running through recipes in their mind, it seems these local names actually relate predominantly to the delicate, domed nest of the Long-tailed Tit, carefully crafted from lichen, moss and spider cocoons and tucked within scrub. The Gloucestershire name of Creak Mouse is likely to refer to its restricted vocal abilities.

One bird who was infamously considered consumable however is the Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe. Whether potted or baked it seems the Wheatear could only be surpassed for flavour by the Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, and they were once trapped widely on the South Downs, particularly in the autumn when they were ‘becoming very fat’. You’d lay down some fat too if you were about to fly over 1,500 miles. Even now, passing through Sussex on migration, they don’t hang around: a Wheatear never forgets. For a species once gracing dinner tables, the Wheatear’s alternative names are more focused on its appearance, voice and behaviour: Fallowchat, Clodhopper, Dyke Hopper and of course White Arse, which refers to its prominant white rump and is thought to have evolved into its modern name.

There seems to be little agreement about the origins of the alternative names of Mawp, Alp and Nope for the Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula, although Thickbill is self-explanatory. References to its name of Hoop or Red Hoop are thought to stem from the word hope, and seem to indicate a fondness for this chunky bird despite its standoffish behaviour towards us, except in the spring when according to John Cotton this ‘insidious plunderer’ visits our gardens for its own banquet. Unless they were hoping it would leave soon.

Another summer migrant with a selection of aliases is the Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis. Nettle Creeper, Straw Mouse and Churr Muffit seem to encapsulate its skulking behaviour, harsh alarm calls and tendency to puff out its throat feathers. You can’t help but feel that some found its scratchy song a bit tedious when you consider the Scottish name Blethering Tam, but John Cotton at least considered it ‘rather pleasing’. 

He also appreciated the ‘wonderful vocal powers’ of the Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus with its seemingly random collection of phrases. Chitter Chat, Scotch Nightingale and Night Sparrow all pay homage to its chaotic repertoire, whilst Thorn Warbler and Lesser Reed Sparrow reflect its preferred habitat. Incidentally, the Reed Sparrow was another name for the Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus (also bizarrely known as a Toad Snatcher). Of course neither the Sedge Warbler nor the Reed Bunting is a sparrow.

There is another case of mistaken identity in the use of Blue Woodpecker for the Nuthatch Sitta europaea. It was also widely called the Mud Dauber, from its habit of plastering the entrance to its nest site with mud. I like to think those who took the time to stop and watch this behaviour probably also noticed it wasn’t a woodpecker.

Some old bird names can appear derogatory at first: Gutter Snipe (Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago) and Gutter Cock (Water Rail Rallus aquaticus), until you realise gutter is an old name for a ditch. It could be worse: in Sussex ditches are also called sewers. There is nothing nice in being called Gowk’s Fool however: a reference to the Meadow Pipit’s Anthus pratensis propensity for raising Cuckoo Cuculus canorus (Gowk) chicks. They have a point though. 

The Osprey’s Pandion haliaetus alternative name of Fishing Hawk is understandable, slightly less kind is the old name of Mullet Hawk, casting aspersions on its hairstyle. No, that’s a fishing reference too. Feel though for the Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra who has otherwise been known as the Big Bunting, Corn Dumpling or Chub Lark. There’s nothing like those common names to make you feel self-conscious about your ‘robust form’.

One bird with a fascinating range of names is the Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis: Fool’s Coat, Proud Tailor, King Harry, Lady with Twelve Flounces, Seven Coloured Linnet. All stem from the finch’s unashamed flaunting of its colourful attire and although outwardly complimentary, you get the feeling there was a certain amount of judgement of its ostentatious plumage.

If you have some time to fill at the moment and are interested in finding out more about bird names there are several books on the topic including:

  • Bo Beolens and Michael Watkins (2003) Whose Bird? Men and Women Commemorated in the Common Names of Birds

  • John Cotton (1836) The Song Birds of Great Britain; Containing Delineations of Thirty-three Birds

  • James Jobling (2009) Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names

  • Roger Lederer and Carol Burr (2014) Latin for Bird Lovers

  • WB Lockwood (1993) The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names

  • Stephen Moss (2019) Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names

You can also head over to our Flickr pages: where we’re sure there’s a few silly names to be found!

Blue footed Booby on a sandy beach, Galapagos