Madison Area Herpetological Society

How Did that Animal Get its Name?

How Did that Animal Get its Name?
By Eric Roscoe

Common names, which are also known by the synonyms of “vernacular”, “colloquial”, and some other terms, are largely just that by definition-common names that are applied to a species in ordinary and/or informal discussion or discourse. In most biological and scientific contexts, however, it is usually most appropriate to also use or include the species’ latin and/or scientific names, typically consisting of a genus and species, as well as subspecies if known or wished to be indicated. Many species that remain less well known or understood may also still have no common, or vernacular name, and instead can only be referred to simply by their latin/scientific names. The etymology of latin and scientific names, however, will not be covered here, and are beyond the scope of this article. Many species have multiple, or more than one common name that can often vary among regions, particularly if the species is widespread or well known, and therefore using common names in these contexts can create confusion or lack of clarity into the actual species in question. Some species can also have the same, or very similar common names, but be very much unrelated and/or found in different areas of the world as well.

As with many other animals, snakes, as well as other reptiles and amphibians can have multiple common names as well. However, the purpose of this article will be to simply examine and explore the origins and/or reasons for the most commonly used “common” names applied to a wide variety of snake species throughout the world, and why they may be commonly called what they are. Origins of interest (such as state, region, locality, country, habitat/environment, etc.), as well as coloration, patterning, or overall appearance are often widely used in naming and describing many species by common name, and particularly subspecies, but can still often be very broad, vague, or imprecise/only marginally related characteristics of that species (particularly if it is a wide ranging species or if it can be a highly variable or polymorphic species). Examples of this can include denoting a general geographic range (i.e. “northern”, “southern”, “western”, or “eastern”), a state/region/or locality (i.e. California “xyz”, San Diego “xyz”, or Amazon “xyz”), or appearance and other phenotypic factors (i.e. speckled “xyz”, black and white “xyz”, or banded “xyz”). This is oftentimes the explanation for how specific subspecies are named or referred to.