In 1760 the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson included a description of the Cape wagtail in his Ornithologie based on a specimen collected from the Cape of Good Hope. He used the French name La bergeronette du Cap de Bonne Espérance and the Latin Motacilla Capitis Bonae Spei. Although Brisson coined Latin names, these do not conform to the binomial system and are not recognised by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. When in 1766 the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus updated his Systema Naturae for the twelfth edition, he added 240 species that had been previously described by Brisson. One of these was the Cape wagtail. Linnaeus included a brief description, coined the binomial name Motacilla capensis and cited Brisson's work. The genus Motacilla had been introduced in 1758 by the Linnaeus in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae. The specific name capensis denotes the Cape of Good Hope.