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English names of carabids

Through the identification guides which John Walters and I are producing, we are introducing English names for the British and Irish carabid beetles. Many coleopterists feel strongly about English names. Anyone who wants to see just what a contentious and divisive topic this can be should look at the archives of the beetles-britishisles Yahoo-group. Here is my attempt to justify the introduction of English names for the carabids of Britain and Ireland.

What use are English names?

English names can help beginners to get into a group. It is a widely held belief that no group can become truly popular without English names. I think it is important for all coleopterists to encourage a new generation to take up the study of beetles, and to use their knowledge to help conserve beetles and their habitats.

Species with English names command greater respect from nature reserve managers, policy-makers, journalists, funding bodies, publishers, interested passers-by and the general public. Some of my carabid English names were first aired with the publication of the revised BAP Priority Species lists in 2007. I felt that they’d been vindicated when John Humphrys referred to the Wormwood Moonshiner (Amara fusca) on Radio 4’s Today programme!

A good English name might be a useful aide-mémoire, even to an experienced coleopterist who is already familiar with the scientific name. For example, Pterostichus nigrita and P. rhaeticus are best distinguished by characters of the eighth abdominal sternites of females. Their proposed English names of ‘Mitten Black-clock’ and ‘Pincer Black-clock’ respectively, reflect the different shapes of the sternites in the two species.

What harm are English names?

Nobody should ever gain the impression that they can use English names for carabids without needing to use scientific names. This may be the case for birds and butterflies, but it would be foolish to attempt to usurp the international system of zoological nomenclature. The English names are an optional second name.

English names have been accused of being part of a general ‘dumbing-down’ in society. It is true that many latinised names are in widespread use, e.g. Chrysanthemum, Rhododendron, Narcissus, Hyacinth, Dahlia, Hippopotamus, Tyrannosaurus. It is equally true that many fields of work require people to learn new jargon. Be that as it may, there is a certain stigma attached to scientific names by many people, and so inventing English names is the only response.

Badly thought out English names can be unhelpful and misleading. As an example of this, the beetle family Histeridae has been referred to as the ‘carrion beetles’, ignoring the fact that histerids occupy a far broader range of ecological niches than just carrion-feeding (e.g. occurring in ant-nests, decaying wood, dung and vertebrate nests). On the other hand, many of the scientific names are no less misleading: Cicindela sylvatica does not occur in woodlands (silvae), but on heathlands.

What makes a good English name?

My carabid names have been based as far as possible on real vernacular usage, although this is very limited for carabids. Those vernacular names that do exist have often not been precisely applied. Thus to many people ‘Violet Ground-beetle’ encompasses both Carabus violaceus and C. problematicus. The name ‘blackclock’ has been used both as a name for Pterostichus melanarius, for P. madidus, and for ‘big, black carabids’ generally. Here I have used it for the genus Pterostichus, and invented the name ‘greenclocks’ for the closely-related genus Poecilus. ‘Sunshiners’ I have used for some Amara, though in its vernacular usage it is likely to have been applied to other shiny and metallic carabids which scuttle across paths in the sunshine (e.g., Harpalus affinis, Poecilus versicolor). The German vernacular names from Wachmann et al. (1995) have been translated into English and these helped to form English names for a few species.

These English names largely mirror the binomial system in being composed of a specific and a generic part.

Each name aims to capture something distinctive about the species and its morphology, colour, ecology, phenology, behaviour, biogeography, status or localities. Every species, even the most lowly, does have at least a few distinctive attributes which could be considered for a name. However, it has often proved difficult to express one or more of those attributes in a name which is still brief, elegant and memorable.

Stability of names

Although the scientific names of most carabids are hopefully close to stability now, it is still occasionally going to be necessary for names to change, and it is always a source of confusion. Whatever the changes of scientific nomenclature, the English names will remain the same!


Wachmann, E., Platen, R. and Barndt, D. (1995) Laufkäfer: Beobachtung, Lebensweise. Augsburg: Naturbuch Verlag.

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