Scientists to change 'problematic' insect names of 'gypsy moth' and 'gypsy ant'

The word 'gypsy' is a derogatory term for Romani people

The world's leading organisation of insect experts will change the common names for the moth Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides, better known as the "gypsy moth" and "gypsy ant", because the terms are offensive to Romani people.

"The purpose of common names is to make communication easier between scientists and the public audiences they serve," said the Entomological Society of America's president Michelle S Smith earlier this month.

"By and large, ESA’s list of recognised insect common names succeeds in this regard, but names that are unwelcoming to marginalised communities run directly counter to that goal. That's why we’re working to ensure all ESA-approved insect common names meet our standards for diversity, equity, and inclusion."

The move comes as part of ESA's Better Common Names Project, as well as a broader ongoing discussion within the scientific community about the use of pejorative terms in naming.

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These problematic names perpetuate harm against people of various ethnicities and races
Entomological Society of America

"To address problematic common names, ESA created a task force charged with spurring action in the entomology community," the project's website says.

"These problematic names perpetuate harm against people of various ethnicities and races, create an entomological and cultural environment that is unwelcoming and non-inclusive, disrupt communication and outreach, and counteract the very purpose of common names."

Lymantria dispar is native to Europe but arrived in America in 1869, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It is described as a "significant pest" as the caterpillars eat and destroy more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. This year, parts of north-eastern US and eastern Canada are experiencing some of the largest outbreaks in decades.

Terry McGlynn, a biology professor of California State University Dominguez Hills, wrote in a 2019 blog post that he coined the term "gypsy ants", saying it was a friend who originally came up with the moniker when McGlynn was studying them in 2000. At the time, he said, he thought the name was "witty and charming".

"They are itinerant critters that move from one place to another, with a number of specific places they will stay temporarily, but never occupy a single one permanently. That sounds like a pleasant way to encapsulate serial monodomy in a common name. I went with that, and to this day, it’s the common name."

It's something he came to regret. "I honestly don’t remember what I was thinking at the time. Was I aware that 'gypsy' was considered as an epithet by Romani people? Did I blithely choose this common name without regard to others, or was I not aware?" he wrote in the blog post, titled Fixing a racist common name that I coined.

"I’d like to think my choice was based on ignorance of the negativity of the term, rather than being aware of this concern and making the choice regardless, but ultimately this is moot because the outcome is what matters."

When McGlynn heard the ESA's announcement on Wednesday, he tweeted: "Some great news."

The ESA received its first formal request to remove the moth’s name from its list in 2020. It is expected the pair of insects will go without a common name for some time, as they work to find a better one, something everyone can get involved with by signing up on the organisation's website here.

The word "gypsy" is said to come from England, from a time when Roma people were mistaken to be Egyptians. According to a 2020 study by Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Centre for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and Voice of Roma, 35 per cent of Romani American respondents said they consider the word to be a racial slur.

Updated: July 13th 2021, 2:40 PM
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