Gregg, E. A., Bekessy, S. A., Martin, J. K., Garrard, G. E. Many IUCN red list species have names that evoke negative emotions. Human Dimensions of Wildlife. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10871209.2020.1753132
In a nutshell: Many of the frequently used words in animal common names have high or low sentiment, and some are also associated with human emotions such as anger, fear, disgust and joy. These words may be good targets for strategic name changes to change perceptions and improve engagement with threatened species.
Animal species common names are a key communication tool between researchers, decision-makers and the public. Some of the words used in these common names are unappealing (e.g., rough-skinned horned toad), misleading (e.g., lesser bird of paradise) or even unmemorable (e.g., little grassbird). In this recent paper the authors explore the sentiment of common names and suggest that changing some of these names could be an effective, and inexpensive, way to improve engagement with and support for the conservation of threatened species.
In order to explore the sentiment and human emotions associated with certain words in common names, the authors used two sentiment lexicons to analyse the common names of 26,794 IUCN Red List animal species. First, they investigated words driving sentiment in the common names, i.e. words that are highly frequent and have particularly high- (i.e. positive) or low-scoring (i.e. negative) sentiment.
They found that the words driving sentiment varied across taxonomic status and – to a lesser extent – threat status, meaning that targets for strategic name changes will vary across these different groups. For example, ‘poison’ was a negative word driving sentiment in the class Amphibia, while ‘lesser’ was a negative word driving sentiment in Mammalia and Aves. The authors also found that some highly frequent words were associated with human emotions such as fear (e.g. ‘snake’) and disgust (e.g. ‘rat’).
This research provides insight into how small alterations in language, such as in common names, have the potential to influence perceptions. The words the authors identify (e.g. greater, golden, least, lesser, false) provide a good starting point for further research – such as controlled experimental studies – that can test more explicitly the effect of strategic name changes on perceptions and willingness to conserve species.