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Nomenclature is a system of names or terms, or the rules for forming these terms in a particular field of arts or sciences.1 The principles of naming vary from the relatively informal conventions of everyday speech to the internationally-agreed principles, rules and recommendations that govern the formation and use of the specialist terms used in scientific and other disciplines.

Naming "things" is a part of our general communication using words and language: it is an aspect of everyday taxonomy as we distinguish the objects of our experience, together with their similarities and differences, which we identify, name and classify. The use of names, as the many different kinds of nouns embedded in different languages, connects nomenclature to theoretical linguistics, while the way we mentally structure the world in relation to word meanings and experience relates to the philosophy of language.

Onomastics, the study of proper names and their origins, includes: anthroponymy, concerned with human names, including personal names, surnames and nicknames; toponymy the study of place names; and etymology, the derivation, history and use of names as revealed through comparative and descriptive linguistics.

The scientific need for simple, stable and internationally-accepted systems for naming objects of the natural world has generated many formal nomenclatural systems. Probably the best known of these nomenclatural systems are the five codes of biological nomenclature that govern the Latinized scientific names of organisms.

Definition & criteria

Nomenclature is a system of words used in particular discipline. It is used in respect of giving names systematically following the rules to all known living. It is applied to many chemical components, mainly used in carbon and hydrogen components.


The word nomenclature is derived from the Latin nomen - name, calare - to call; the Ancient Greek ονοματοκλήτωρ from όνομα or onoma meaning name and equivalent to the Old English nama and Old High German namo which is derived from Sanskrit nama. The Latin term nomenclatura refers to a list of names as does the word nomenclator which can also indicate a provider or announcer of names.

Onomastics and nomenclature

The study of proper names is known as onomastics,2 which has a wide-ranging scope encompassing all names, all languages, all geographical and cultural regions. The distinction between onomastics and nomenclature is not readily clear: onomastics is an unfamiliar discipline to most people and the use of nomenclature in an academic sense is also not commonly known. Although the two fields integrate, nomenclature concerns itself more with the rules and conventions that are used for the formation of names.citation needed

Naming as a cultural activity

Names provide us with a way of structuring and mapping the world in our minds so, in some way, they mirror or represent the objects of our experience.

Names, words, language and meaning

Elucidating the connections between language (especially names and nouns), meaning and the way we perceive the world has provided a rich field of study for philosophers and linguists. Relevant areas of study include: the distinction between proper names and proper nouns;3 and the relationship between names,4 their referents,5 meanings (semantics), and the structure of language.

Folk taxonomy

Modern scientific taxonomy has been described as "basically a Renaissance codification of folk taxonomic principles."6 Formal scientific nomenclatural and classification systems are exemplified by biological classification. All classification systems are established for a purpose. The scientific classification system anchors each organism within the nested hierarchy of internationally-accepted classification categories. Maintenance of this system involves formal rules of nomenclature and periodic international meetings of review. This modern system evolved from the folk taxonomy of pre-history.7 Folk taxonomy can be illustrated through the Western tradition of horticulture and gardening. Unlike scientific taxonomy, folk taxonomies serve many purposes. Examples in horticulture would be the grouping of plants, and naming of these groups, according to their properties and uses: annuals, biennials and perennials (nature of life cycle); vegetables, fruits, culinary herbs and spices (culinary use); herbs, trees and shrubs (growth habit); wild and cultivated plants (whether they are managed or not), and weeds (whether they are considered to be a nuisance or not) and so on.

Folk taxonomy is generally associated with the way rural or indigenous peoples use language to make sense of and organise the objects around them. Ethnobiology frames this interpretation through either "utilitarianists" like Bronislaw Malinowski who maintain that names and classifications reflect mainly material concerns, and "intellectualists" like Claude Lévi-Strauss who hold that they spring from innate mental processes.8 The literature of ethnobiological classifications was reviewed in 2006.9 Folk classification is defined by the way in which members of a language community name and categorize plants and animals whereas ethnotaxonomy refers to the hierarchical structure, organic content, and cultural function of biological classification that ethnobiologists find in every society around the world.10

Ethnographic studies of the naming and classification of animals and plants in non-Western societies have revealed some general principles that indicate pre-scientific man’s conceptual and linguistic method of organising the biological world in a hierarchical way.11121314 Such studies indicate that the urge to classify is a basic human instinct.1516

  • in all languages natural groups of organisms are distinguished (present-day taxa)
  • these groups are arranged into more inclusive groups or ethnobiological categories
  • in all languages there are about five or six ethnobiological categories of graded inclusiveness
  • these groups (ethnobiological categories) are arranged hierarchically, generally into mutually exclusive ranks
  • the ranks at which particular organisms are named and classified is often similar in different cultures

The levels are — moving from the most to least inclusive:

  • level 1 - "unique beginner" --e.g. plant or animal. A single all-inclusive name rarely used in folk taxonomies but loosely equivalent to an original living thing, a "common ancestor"
  • level 2 - “life form” --------------e.g. tree, bird, grass and fish These are usually primary lexemes (basic linguistic units) loosely equivalent to a phylum or major biological division.
  • level 3 - "generic name" ------e.g. oak, pine, robin, catfish This is the most numerous and basic building block of all folk taxonomies, the most frequently referred to, the most important psychologically, and among the first learned by children. These names can usually be associated directly with a second level group. Like life-form names these are primary lexemes.
  • level 4 - "specific name" ------e.g. white fir, post oak More or less equivalent to species. A secondary lexeme and generally less frequent than generic names.
  • level 5 - "varietal name"--------e.g. baby lima bean, butter lima bean.

In almost all cultures objects are named using one or two words equivalent to "kind" (genus) and "particular kind" (species).6 When made up of two words (a binomial) the name usually consists of a noun (like salt, dog or star) and an adjectival second word that helps describe the first, and therefore makes the name, as a whole, more "specific", for example, lap dog, sea salt, or film star. The meaning of the noun used for a common name may have been lost or forgotten (whelk, elm, lion, shark, pig) but when the common name is extended to two or more words much more is conveyed about the organism's use, appearance or other special properties (sting ray, poison apple, giant stinking hogweed, hammerhead shark). These noun-adjective binomials are just like our own names with a family or surname like Simpson and another adjectival Christian- or forename name that specifies which Simpson, say Homer Simpson. It seems reasonable to assume that the form of scientific names we call binomial nomenclature is derived from this simple and practical way of constructing common names - but with the use of Latin as a universal language.

In keeping with the "utilitarianist" view other authors maintain that ethnotaxonomies resemble more a "complex web of resemblances" than a neat hierarchy.17

Names and nouns

A name is a label for any noun. Names can identify a class or category of things, or a single thing, either uniquely, or within a given context. Names are given, for example, to humans or any other organisms, places, products - as in brand names - and even to ideas or concepts. It is names as nouns that are the building blocks of nomenclature.

The word "name" is possibly derived from the Proto-Indo-European language hypothesised word nomn.18 The distinction between names and nouns, if made at all, is extremely subtle19 although clearly “noun” refers to names as lexical categories and their function within the context of language,20 rather that as “labels” for objects and properties.

Personal names

Human personal names are presented, used and categorised in many ways depending on the language and culture. It is customary nowadays to use at least (or set of names) two-word names or binomials. In the modern tradition the first name is given at birth or shortly thereafter and is referred to as the given name, the forename, the baptismal name (if given then), or simply the first name. In England prior to the Norman invasion of 1066 small communities of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians all used single names, each person being identified by a single name as either a personal name or nickname. As the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further – giving rise to names like John the butcher, Henry from Sutton, and Roger son of Richard … which naturally evolved into John Butcher, Henry Sutton, and Roger Richardson. We now know this additional name variously as the second name, last name, family name, surnames or occasionally the byname, and this natural tendency was accelerated by the Norman tradition of using surnames that were fixed and hereditary within individual families. In combination these two names are now known as the personal name or, simply, the name. There are many exceptions to this general rule: Westerners often insert a third or more names between the given and surnames; Chinese and Hungarian names have the family name preceding the given name; females now often retain their maiden names (their family surname) or combine, using a hyphen, their maiden name and the surname of their husband; some East Slavic nations insert the patronym (a name derived from the given name of the father) between the given and the family name; in Iceland the given name is used with the patronym, or matronym (a name derived from the given name of the mother), and surnames are rarely used. Nicknames (sometimes called hypocoristic names) are informal names used mostly between friends.

Common names and proper names

The distinction between proper names and common names is that proper names denote a unique entity e.g. London Bridge, while common names are used in a more general sense in reference to a class of objects e.g. bridge. Many proper names are obscure in meaning as they lack any apparent meaning in the way that ordinary words mean, probably for the practical reason that when they consist of Collective nouns, they refer to groups, even when they are inflected for the singular e.g. "committee". Concrete nouns like “cabbage” refer to physical bodies that can be observed by at least one of the senses while abstract nouns, like “love” and “hate” refer to abstract objects. In English, many abstract nouns are formed by adding noun-forming suffixes ("-ness", "-ity", "-tion") to adjectives or verbs e.g. "happiness", "serenity" “concentration”. Pronouns, like "he", "it", "which", and "those" stand in place of nouns in noun phrases.

The capitalization of nouns varies with language and even the particular context: journals often have their own house styles for common names.

-onym nouns

Distinctions may be made between particular kinds of names simply by using the suffix -onym, from the Greek ὄνομα (ónoma) 'name'. So we have, for example, hydronyms name bodies of water, synonyms are names with the same meaning, and so on. The entire field could be described as chrematonymy - the names of things.


Toponyms are the names given to places or features of a particular district, region, etc.2122 This could include planets, countries, cities, towns, villages, buildings etc.; it can be further divided into specialist branches: hodonymy, the names of streets, roads, and the like; hydronymy, the names of water bodies; and oronomy, the names of mountains. Toponymy has popular appeal because of its socio-cultural and historical interest and significance for cartography. However, work on the etymology of toponyms has found that many place names are descriptive, honorific or commemorative but frequently they have no meaning or the meaning is obscure or lost. Also the many categories of names are frequently interrelated. For example, many place-names are derived from personal names ( Victoria), many names of planets and stars are derived from the names of mythological characters (Venus, Neptune), and many personal names are derived from place-names, names of nations and the like (Wood, Smith, Bridge).2324

Scientific nomenclature

Nomenclature, classification and identification

In biological science, at least, nomenclature is regarded as a part of (though distinct from) taxonomy. Taxonomy can be defined as the study of classification including its principles, procedures and rules,25 while classification itself is the ordering of taxa (the objects of classification) into groups based on similarities or differences.2627 Doing taxonomy entails identifying, describing28 and naming taxa29 so nomenclature, in this strict scientific sense, is that branch of taxonomy concerned with the application of scientific names to taxa, based on a particular classification scheme and in accordance with agreed international rules and conventions.

Identification determines whether a particular taxon (singular of taxa) is identical to another one that has already been classified and named – so classification must precede identification.30 As taxa are rarely strictly identical, but only treated as such for the purposes of the classification, this procedure is sometimes referred to as “determination".31

The precision demanded by science in the accurate naming of objects in the natural world has resulted in a variety of international nomenclatural codes, standards and protocols.


Although Linnaeus’ system of binomial nomenclature was rapidly adopted after the publication of his Species Plantarum and Systema Naturae in 1753 and 1758 respectively, it was a long time before there was international consensus concerning the more general rules governing biological nomenclature. The first botanical code was produced in 1905, the zoological code in 1889 and cultivated plant code in 1953. Agreement on the nomenclature and symbols for genes emerged in 1979.


Over the last few hundred years, the number of identified astronomical objects has risen from hundreds to over a billion, and more are discovered every year. Astronomers need universal systematic designations to unambiguously identify all of these objects using astronomical naming conventions, while assigning names to the most interesting objects and, where relevant, naming important or interesting features of those objects.


The IUPAC nomenclature is a system of naming chemical compounds and for describing the science of chemistry in general. It is maintained by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. The rules for naming organic and inorganic compounds are printed in two publications, the Blue Book3435 and the Red Book36 available here. A third publication, Green Book,37 contains recommendations for the use of symbols for physical quantities (in association with the IUPAP), while a fourth, the Gold Book,38 defines a large number of technical terms used in chemistry. Similar compendia exist for biochemistry39 (in association with the IUBMB), analytical chemistry40 and macromolecular chemistry.41 These books are supplemented by shorter recommendations for specific circumstances which are published from time to time in the journal Pure and Applied Chemistry. These systems can be accessed here.


The classic English translation of De re metallica includes an appendix (Appendix C) detailing problems of nomenclature in weights and measures.


  • Symbols, units and nomenclature in physics.42


See also


  1. ^ "Nomenclature - definitions from". Retrieved 2007-10-06. 
  2. ^ Scheetz, George H. 1988. Names' Names: A Descriptive and Prescriptive Onymicon. (“What’s In a Name?” Chapbook Series; 2.) Sioux City, Ia.: Schütz Verlag.
  3. ^ "Names." In The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved: 2009-09-23.
  4. ^ Bach, Kent 1981. What's in a name? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 59: 371–86.
  5. ^ "Reference." In The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2009-09-23.
  6. ^ a b Raven, Peter H., Berlin, Brent, Breedlove, Dennis E. 1971. The origins of taxonomy. Science. New Series 174(4015): 1210-1213. p. 1210.
  7. ^ Conklin, Harold C. 1980. Folk Classification: A Topically Arranged Bibliography of Contemporary and Background References through 1971. New Haven, CT: Yale University Department of Anthropology. ISBN 0-913516-02-3.
  8. ^ Balee, William 1993. Journal of Ethnobiology 13(1): 144–147.
  9. ^ Newmaster, Stephen G. et al. 2006. Mechanisms of Ethnobiological Classifications. Ethnobotany 18: 4–26.
  10. ^ Newmaster, Stephen G. et al. 2006. Mechanisms of Ethnobiological Classifications. Ethnobotany 18:4.
  11. ^ Berlin, Brent, Breedlove, Dennis E. & Raven, Peter H. 1973. General principles of classification and nomenclature in folk biology. American Anthropologist 75: 214-242
  12. ^ Durkheim, Emile 1902. De quelques formes primitives de classification, In Mauss, M. 1963. L’année sociologique VI: 1-71. English edition. Primitive Classification. London: Cohen & West. ISBN 978-0-226-17334-4.
  13. ^ Levy-Bruhl, Lucien 1910. Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures. Paris. English transl. How Natives Think. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1985. ISBN 0-691-02034-5.
  14. ^ Berlin, Brent 1992. Ethnobiological classification - principles of categorization of plants and animals in traditional societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-09469-4.
  15. ^ Hopwood, Tindell A. 1959. The Development of Pre-Linnaean Taxonomy. Proceedings of the Linnaean Society (London) 170: 230-234.
  16. ^ Yoon, Carol K. 2009. Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-06197-0.
  17. ^ Morris, B. 1984. The Pragmatics of Folk Classification. Journal of Ethnobiology 4(1): 45–60.
  18. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2008-09-20. 
  19. ^ Anderson, John M. 2007. The Grammar of Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-929741-2. Retrieved 2009-09-23.
  20. ^ Loos, Eugene E., et al. 2003. Glossary of linguistic terms: what is a noun? Retrieved 2009-09-23.
  21. ^ Room, Adrian 1997. Place names of the World: Origins and Meanings of the Names for over 5000 Natural Features, Countries, Capitals, Territories, Cities and Historic sites. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-0172-7
  22. ^ Ekwall, Eilert 1960. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. 4th edition. (includes the origin of place-names). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  23. ^ Harder, Kelsie B. 1976. Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names: United States and Canada. (reprinted 1985). New York: Van Nostrand.
  24. ^ Powell, Margaret S., and Stephen C. Powell. 1990. Bibliography of Place-Name Literature, United States and Canada, 1980-1988. Names 38(1,2): 49-141.
  25. ^ Davis, Peter H. & Heywood, Vernon H. 1965. Principles of Angiosperm Taxonomy. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd. p.8.
  26. ^ Onions, Charles T. (ed.) 2007. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Sixth Edition. Oxford: Clarenden Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923324-3.
  27. ^ Simpson, Michael G. 2006. Plant Systematics. London: Elsevier Academic Press. p. 552. ISBN 978-0-12-644460-5.
  28. ^ Winston, Judith E. 1999. Describing Species: Practical Taxonomic Procedure for Biologists. New YorK: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-06825-3.
  29. ^ Lawrence, George H.M. 1951. Taxonomy of Vascular Plants. New York: Macmillan. p.3.
  30. ^ Stuessy, Tod F. 2008. Plant Taxonomy. New York: Columbia Press. p.10. ISBN 0-231-06784-4.
  31. ^ Davis, Peter H. & Heywood, Vernon H. 1965. Principles of Angiosperm Taxonomy. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd. p.5. ISBN 81-7019-277-3.
  32. ^ NC-ICBMB & Webb, Edwin C.(eds) 1992. Enzyme Nomenclature 1992: Recommendations of the NCIUBMB on the Nomenclature and Classification of Enzymes. London: Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-227165-6.
  33. ^ Rozenberg, Gillian 2004. Red Cell Nomenclature. Westmead, Sydney: RCPA Haematology QAP. Retrieved 2009-09-23.
  34. ^ IUPAC 1979. Nomenclature of Organic Chemistry, Sections A, B, C, D, E, F, and H. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  35. ^ IUPAC 1993. A Guide to IUPAC Nomenclature of Organic Compounds (Recommendations 1993). Oxford: Blackwell Scientific publications.
  36. ^ Connelly Neil G., McCleverty Jon A. (2001). Nomenclature of inorganic chemistry II: recommendations 2000. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry. ISBN 0-85404-487-6. 
  37. ^ IUPAC 2007. Quantities, Units and Symbols in Physical Chemistry. 3rd edn. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.
  38. ^ IUPAC 1997. Compendium of Chemical Terminology, IUPAC Recommendations. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.
  39. ^ IUPAC 1992. Biochemical Nomenclature and Related Documents. London: Portland Press.
  40. ^ IUPAC 1998. Compendium of Analytical Nomenclature, Definitive Rules 1997. 3rd edn. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.
  41. ^ IUPAC 1991. Compendium of Macromolecular Nomenclature. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.
  42. ^ The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System. 1978 Symbols, units and nomenclature in physics. Physica A 93(1-2): 1-60. Retrieved 2009-09-23.

External links

Further reading

  • Scheetz, George H. (1988). Names' Names: A Descriptive and Prescriptive Onymicon. (“What’s In a Name?” Chapbook Series; 2.) Sioux City, Ia.: Schütz Verlag.

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