Now they’ve come for the ants and the moths—and the rest of the insects will be vetted

July 12, 2021 • 9:15 am

The purging of biological names that could possibly offend people continues. Since birds are now on the list for name-purging, the entomologists have gotten busy, too. Who wants to be left out? And so, according to an article from the ESA Bulletin, the familiar “gypsy moth” and the less familiar “gypsy ant” will be renamed. But that’s just the beginning, for the entomological pecksniffs will pore through all insect names and bin the ones that don’t comport with modern “progressive” liberal ideology.

Now in this case I have no objection to the renaming of two common names—the famous gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) and the gypsy ant (Aphaenogaster araneoides). That’s because to the Romani people (previously known as “gypsies”), the term “gypsy” is highly offensive. (The name comes from their presumed resemblance to Egyptians, though their genetic origin is India.) It is an ethnic slur.  After all, it’s like having common names like the “Kike moth” or the “Hebe ant”, which would be unacceptable.

Although common names can be changed on the grounds of offense, it’s harder to change Latin binomials, which are embedded in the literature and would be very confusing were they to change, but in this case, as you see above, it’s not needed.

The change, which appears to be only the beginning, is described in this article from the Entomological Society of America (click on screenshot):

Here’s what they did, and I emphasize again that this is okay by me. What I fear is what will come now.

The existing common names for the moth Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides were identified as containing a derogatory term for the Romani people. In June, the ESA Governing Board elected to remove the common names for both species from the ESA Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List.

Native to Eurasia, Lymantria dispar is a serious pest of North American forests, with caterpillars that feed on more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. This year, parts of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada are seeing some of the largest outbreaks of L. dispar in decades. ESA will seek to convene a volunteer group to propose a new common name for L. dispar, which would then be made available for ESA member comment and subject to approval by the ESA Committee on Insect Common Names and the ESA Governing Board.

What worries me, however, is that what happened with birds—the purging of common names involving people who made contributions to science but were imperfect, following the morality of earlier times—will also happen with insects. And while there are roughly 10,000 species of birds in the world, there are could be as many as 5.5 million species of insects, with about 900,000 named already. Vetting insect names will be a much bigger task, and those who do so may be tempted to do with insects what they did with birds. As we know, even Darwin’s name isn’t safe now!

And so the ESA has a project to vet insect names, the “Better Common Names Project.” Click on the screenshot to read about it.

And so the ESA is soliciting everyone to scrutinize insect names (you can single out a name that you want changed here), looking for odiferous names like these:

  • Names that contain derogative terms
  • Names for invasive species with inappropriate geographic references
  • Names that inappropriately disregard what the insect might be called by native communities

The “inappropriate geographic references” bit intrigued me, though all three categories could be, as they say, “problematic”. Here’s what’s wrong with using geographic names:

What’s the problem with geographic references in common names?

Referencing geography in a common name for an insect, in particular for invasive or harmful species, can perpetuate discrimination, xenophobia, and bias against people from the same geographic region. For example, throughout history, immigrants, refugees, or “othered” groups have been compared to insects or referenced in entomological terms, and a large body of scholarship has explored this pattern.  For further reading on the topic, see:

  • Shinozuka’s article on how the Japanese beetle influenced anti-Asian policy in the early 20th century and was used as a vehicle to dehumanize Japanese people and persuade Americans that the “invaders” needed to be eradicated.
  • Santa Ana’s article about anti-immigrant metaphor, specifically “immigrants as animals.”
  • Anderson’s analysis of media portrayals of asylum seekers as vermin or pests.

Furthermore, ESA members have reported being the targets of derogatory comments made in reference to insects with geographic common names, including being called “invasive” due to their ethnicity.

There is also precedent in other areas of study for changing names that reference geographic regions to minimize negative effects on groups or contribute to stigma. For example:

  • An article from the Star Tribune discussing Minnesota’s decision to refer to the Asian carp as invasive carp to avoid negative effects on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans.
  • The WHO advises against using geographic terms to name diseases to minimize negative effects and offense toward any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.

ESA is a global society, and increasingly so. Therefore, it’s important that the names we call insects are relevant on a global scale; are inclusive of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities; and do not perpetuate harm against people.

Of course some of this is objectionable behavior, like referring to asylum seekers as “vermin,” but that has nothing to do with insect names.  For example, I have no problem with “Japanese beetle, or “Asian carp”, which are not in themselves racist. They can be misused by racists, but they simply describe the geographic origin of a species.

In cases like this I tend to adhere to Grania’s Dictum. When she was alive, she always asked me in cases like this: “Will making these changes really accomplish anything? If not, it’s just a performance of virtue flaunting.” And the ESA’s claim that common names that fall into the three categories above should be changed because they “perpetuate discrimination, xenophobia, and bias against people from the same geographic region” seems exaggerated. Is the “American white pelican” going to cause anti-American bias? Not likely? Or are they referring only to names referring to Countries of Color? And what about plants? They’re probably on the schedule, too. There goes Spanish Moss. . .

By all means ditch the gypsy moth and gypsy ant, and any other common names containing racial slurs. But we have learned that the Pecksniffs, once they get started, can de-name anything so long as it offends just one or two people.  And much of that renaming has no effect on racism and xenophobia. When new names are proposed, everyone else tends to fall in line, for academics tend to be both pusillanimous and conformist, and who wants to raise their voice against a determined Pecksniff?

Finally, good luck with the 350,000 species of beetles! Remember, there’s a Darwin’s beetle. Here it is—a magnificent creature:

Chiasognathus grantii, soon to be the “big-mandibled beetle from South America”

h/t: Gregory

68 thoughts on “Now they’ve come for the ants and the moths—and the rest of the insects will be vetted

    1. It never occurred to me to associate the “gypsy” in gypsy moth with the Romani people until I read this article. I’m now wondering how we are going to refer to the boat in which Francis Chichester sailed around the World.

      1. In a similar vein, I’m thinking about the fate of an LP I inherited from my Hungarian father, entitled “Ernie Király and His Gypsy Orchestra: 20 Hungarian Dance Csárdás.” This was one of my dad’s favorite records and is a favorite of mine, too.

    1. Jesus, I’d forgotten about the pygmy shrews, hippos, and marmosets. But I guess the cracker butterfly will be allow to remain. Or will it? Oh my, it makes my head hurt.

      1. OK… marmosets? I’m using up on such terms, but hat is possibly offensive about “marmosets?”

        I actually tried a search on that on got this” “Marmosets treated with oxytocin are more socially attractive to their long-term mate” which I didn’t even read, as I pretty sure whatever they were doing to the marmosets was not with their consent.

  1. *Sigh*. I did not think that “gypsy” had sufficient negative connotations since the word is very commonly used to refer to any free wanderer. So there also goes Stevie Nicks Gypsy song.

    There are other common insect names that do come across as rather rude today. Negro bug & crazy ant come to mind.

    1. “Negro bug” has not been used for some time, they are now burrower or burrowing bugs. I had thought of crazy ants. Perhaps “clinically insane ants”? “Nutty as a fruitcake ants”?

    2. At this point, wouldn’t “Romani” also itself be perceived as a slight?

      Who ever names their own ethnic / nationality group anyway? They are born into it, aren’t they?

      1. Who ever names their own ethnic / nationality group anyway?

        “We” do.

        They are born into it, aren’t they?

        No, “they” most definitely are not. “They” are born into “them”, while “we” are born into “us”, not “them”. It’s a fundamental dichotomy between real humans and the lizard-people (in human skins) who you can only see out of the corner of your eyes just as you’re waking up.

    3. So far as I know, “gypsy” doesn’t have negative connotations and isn’t a racial slur. It may be outdated, like “oriental”, but I don’t recall it ever having been derogatory. I can’t speak for the whole world’s usage, though.

      1. Even the term “Asian” is being put on trial. So the Asian ladybird beetle will go along with many others. This is b/c it reminds people of Asia. And therefore Japanese cars out-competing American cars, or China, and therefore Covid-19.

      2. My eldest son’s Jack Russel is called ‘Gypsy’. And a sweet little doggie she ja. I’ll be damned if I have to call her Roma.
        I take offense at them taking offense to the name Gypsy. We should not give these pecksniffs an inch, not a micron.
        There is a beetle named Anophtalmus hitlerii, problematic? I bet it was no compliment,

  2. I saw a comment below the line of a Guardian article just last week by an activist within a Gypsy and Traveller campaigning organisation which said that “Gypsy” was preferred over Romani etc. I can’t remember their arguments, but certainly in the UK the term Gypsy isn’t regarded as a slur, and is used in the names of many such organisations, e.g. this one: Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group –

    1. The Romani is a specific ethnic group, like the Sinti. In Europe, they are often called (a translation of) the term Gypsy, and it is something of a slur, though reactions to it vary, as does the intent with which it is used. Irish Travellers are also known as Gypsies, and, apart from the travelling lifestyle (which not all have anymore anyway), they have practically nothing in common with Sinti and Romani.

      1. Thanks for the “Irish Travellers” explanation. I’ve watched “Derry Girls” several times over, and the episode with the travellers never made any sense because I assumed they were meant to be gypsies/Romani in Northern Ireland. Now I get it.

        1. I’ve watched “Derry Girls” several times over

          I might have to rewatch – such a good show. I love the Uncle (Colm?) and his run on sentences, I know several people like that in real life.

  3. Being offended is a choice. Have there been surveys of gypsies to see if any are actually offended, or is this merely a product of self-righteous virtue signallers?
    Finally, if offended, couldn’t gypsies just grow up instead?

    1. I haven’t taken a survey, but I read at least one testimony by a Romani that she was offended by gypsy.

      But “if offended, couldn’t gypsies just grow up instead” is a bit unempathic. Would you say that to black people who were offended by the n-word?

    2. … couldn’t gypsies just grow up instead?

      Couldn’t everyone else just get by with calling people whatever it is they prefer to be called instead?

      1. We could, but I wouldn’t like attempts to “retcon” the language of the past to conform to standards that nobody had heard of until 20 years ago. I mean, I wouldn’t like classic novels being cancelled for using the exonym “Gypsy” (at a time when no other word for this ethnicity existed), the way “Huckleberry Finn” is being cancelled over the N-word.

        Or imagine that a modern writer wants to write a novel about the Late Middle Ages, and his plot requires a white point-of-view character to join a Romani camp or go to a Roma fortune-teller. If the writer intends to use “Roma” and “Romani”, I’d advise him to discard the whole book idea right away.

        1. I’m opposed to retconning works of art for political purposes, literature above all.

          But if people wish to be called “Romani” (or any other name) now, why not? It does one no injury — neither picks one’s pocket nor breaks one’s leg — to accommodate them.

      2. When I was young “negro” was the preferred, respectful word, then seemingly overnight it was pejorative. I have a hard time not being cynical about how or why this occurred.

        1. In those days women were expected to aspire to the role of housewife and helpmate and to use the honorific “Mrs.,” too. And with the exception of the Mattachine Society, “homosexuals” were all in the closet.

          Times change, customs change. What is the source of your cynicism?

  4. All of these kinds of things feel just like “thoughts and prayers”, letting people feel as if they were doing something when they really aren’t making any useful difference at all. If these people have so much energy to spare, why don’t they do something that actually makes a measurable change in the lives of people who are suffering?

    1. I came here to say pretty much exactly this. They seem to be putting a lot of effort into this project and it will have zero effect on the lives of people in the groups that are offended by the names.

  5. “After all, it’s like having common names like the “Kike moth” or the “Hebe ant”, which would be unacceptable.”

    I would add it is NOT like Jews’ harp, where an instrument is associated with a particular sound that has made a mark, and so recognizes the Jewish communities that invented it….

    … now I have to go read about Jews’ harp – maybe I have it backwards.

  6. It is an ethnic slur. After all, it’s like having common names like the “Kike moth” or the “Hebe ant”, which would be unacceptable.

    The name of the noble jewfish has been changed to “goliath grouper” (even though, at least as it was explained to me when I first came down here decades ago, the name’s etymology had nothing to do with Semitic people, but was derived from a mispronunciation of “jawfish,” as the fish was originally known due to its prominent lower jaw).

    Nevertheless, the first cut between the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Straits that separates the Florida Keys from the mainland is still called “Jewfish Creek” (and the beam bridge over it, “Jewfish Creek Bridge”). Go figure.

  7. The German Cockroach isn’t on the list. It’s also in scope, because it’s neither common in Germany, nor did it originate in Germany. I don’t find it offensive personally, but while we are at it.

    1. Chocolate – 9 letters
      Cockroach – 9 letters

      This might make a cool spelling puzzle actually…. where the words gets transformed…

      1. That’s what I thought they meant by “inappropriate geographic references”—names that make you think the organism came from someplace that it didn’t, such as the Norway rat, which is not originally from Norway.

        1. Or what about the Turkey?
          Or the Spanish flu?
          Note, the brown rat is more ‘serious’, since it is the official, scientific name that attributes wrongly: Rattus norvegicus

  8. I was under the impression that “gypsy” is in general use in the UK (including by such folk themselves), and isn’t considered offensive in itself. (E.g. link.) However, if you wanted to ensure you were being polite you’d likely refer to “travellers” . Abbreviated forms (“gyps”, “gypos”) certainly are derogatory. As usual (and contrary to the Woke) context and intent matter quite a bit.

    1. …in Australia (and perhaps elsewhere), we have ‘grey nomads’, people of retirement age who spend their time travelling around the country in their cars and towing caravans… a term of affection I’m sure, unless of course you are stuck behind them on the road, and they’re driving somewhat under the speed limit…

    2. Yup, I wonder how many Gypsy / Traveller groups were actually consulted about the eradication of terms like Gypsy moth?

  9. From Wiki:A British House of Commons Committee parliamentary inquiry, as described in their report “Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities” (published 2019), stated about their findings in the United Kingdom that: “We asked many members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities how they preferred to describe themselves. While some find the term “Gypsy” to be offensive, many stakeholders and witnesses were proud to associate themselves with this term and so we have decided that it is right and proper to use it, where appropriate, throughout the report.”

    1. I’m also wondering how this is playing out in out in societies that don’t speak English. Are the words cigány, tzigane, or zigano going by the boards?

      1. Also wondering about the future of related foreign phrases taken into English, such as “a la zingara” (culinary arts) and “alla zingarese” (music).

      2. I have come across Baltic people who have a surname derived from the Romanian țigan. I would also be surprised if the Poles don’t have Cygański as a surname. Will they have to change their names to be politically correct.

        And of course there is the famous Gypsy Moth aircraft.

  10. Wait until this particular fashion hits music—particularly, we can be certain, in the groves of academe. There go a multitude of classic Scots and Irish folksongs such as “The Gypsy Rover”, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy”, “Gypsy Laddie”, etc. etc. The words of the latter (“. Three gypsies cam’ tae oor ha’ door, An’ O! but they sang bonnie”) will of course have to be edited. Then we have the European counterpart of “Gypsy”: Tsigane., in various spellings. Certain violin rhapsodies will have to be renamed, including “Tsigane” by the microaggressive Maurice Ravel and “Zigeunerweisen” by the notorious racist Pablo de Sarasate.

  11. Azuh biogeographer, I object to some of these name changes. The geographical references in some common names (like Asian carp) are useful for invasive or introduced species because the common name conveys some information about the biologeographical event (came from Asia somewhere).

    If some racists use that to slur Asian people, then let’s fix that problem of racist people. Changing the common names of ecologically important animals won’t do anything to fix that.

    1. The European starling is an invasive species in South Africa. There are more European invasive species, but they are not called ‘European’ (or not really invasive).
      I think the majority (or at least plurality) of invasive species here come from Australia.

      1. Good point! An advantage of common names (in addition to the scientific binomials) is that a species can have different common names in different places, and those differences can be useful.

    1. Unless Ms. G. Rose Lee communicates by necromancy — by, say, projecting the shadow of a striptease on a séance wall — that she wishes to change her name, I think we’re still solid on that one. 🙂

  12. Who will speak for the vegetables? The Jerusalem Artichoke isn’t from Jerusalem and it isn’t an artichoke.

    1. My son Aaron speaks for the vegetables. He generally refuses to eat them, except for potato wedges.

  13. The use of the terms “slave” and “slavery” when naming insects and taking about their behaviour is also becoming verboten.

    For example “slave-making ants” and their parasitic practice of “slave-raiding” other colonies has caused some hand wringing.

    There’s an assumption that any reference to slavery will be triggering to black students and create an unwelcoming environment. The proposal is that they be renamed kidnapper ants, or pirate ants, to be more inclusive.

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