A word or two on the naming of odonata.

Scientific names
Following the work of Carl Linnaeus in the mid-1700s, scientific names, which had formerly been lengthy, complex affairs, were elegantly simplified to just two names expressing genus & species. Hence, the names are also referred to as binomial names (e.g. Onychogomphus forcipatus). Where a subspecies is involved, a third name is appended and a trinomial name is created (e.g. Onychogomphus forcipatus unguiculatus). Scientific names are frequently incorrectly called “Latin names” – incorrect because the names can actually be mixtures of Latin and Greek.

When the earliest field guides, e.g. The Dragonflies of the British Isles by Cynthia Longfield [1937], were published, scientific names were the only names available. Even in 1988 when R. R. Askew published the first European field guide, The Dragonflies of Europe, only scientific names were used.

Scientific names produce a few problems, particularly with the British who are classically distanced by foreign languages. Because much of the world manages to communicate in English, Britons really do not have to try very hard with other tongues.

There are clearly pronunciation difficulties, too. I deliberately used complicated examples of binomial and trinomial names above to highlight this – they even look scary. The problem was exacerbated by the great Cynthia Longfield herself when she included in her 1937 field guide a pronunciation guide, which I can only describe as a “mispronunciation guide”. For example, she instructed readers to pronounce Coenagrion as see-nag-ree-on. Latin had no soft c and “Coen” would have been pronounced more like our “coin”. Compounding the difficulty by looking at a particular species, Coenagrion pulchelum, would the “ch” been a hard “k” sound or like our “ch”?

I have even been called elitist for using scientific names. So, enter …

Common names
… also called vernacular names. These are designed to make my favourite beasts more accessible by naming them in ones native tongue. Thus Onychogomphus forcipatus becomes the Green-eyed Hooktail.

Or does it? Common/vernacular names produce their own difficulties, specifically in the English tongue.

Firstly, common names attempt to be in some way descriptive, sometimes of physical attributes and sometimes of geographical distribution. However, the Green-eyed Hooktail does not always have green eyes, for example. The Scarce Chaser may be relatively uncommon in England but is not sur le continent. Names based on geography can be even worse: originally, the Norfolk Hawker was restricted to the English county of Norfolk but now has extended its range to include Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire … Furthermore, it exists in other European countries where a name involving Norfolk makes no sense at all.

Secondly, where English is used in a wide variety of theatres, multiple very different common names exist. One of my favourite examples is Orthetrum sabina which is variously known as:

  • Slender Skimmer (Europe: K-D Dijkstra)
  • Variegated Green Skimmer (Singapore: Tang Hung Bun)
  • Green Skimmer (Sri Lanka: Sumanapala)
  • Green Marsh Hawk (India: Subramanian)

Most European countries have common names in their own tongue. Spain uses only scientific names so Spaniards use binomial names without missing a beat. (I believe a project is ongoing to develop a set of common names, however.)