These Moths Will Be Renamed to Stop Use of an Ethnic Slur

The Entomological Society of America is taking suggestions to rename the insect previously called the ‘gypsy moth’

Lymantria dispar dispar
Next, the Entomological Society’s Better Common Names project will put together working groups that include experts who study the species and people from the insect’s native regions to decide on a new name. Photo by Schellhorn/ullstein bild via Getty Images

On July 7, the Entomological Society of America announced that it will no longer recognize “gypsy moth” as the common name of Lymantria dispar dispar because it used a pejorative term for Romani people, James Doubek reports for NPR.

The organization has maintained a list of recognized common names for insects since the 20th century and has recognized the common name “Gypsy moth” since at least 1908. They had known for some time that the moth’s common name was derogatory, but received its first formal request to remove the name in 2020, and then began an official review process, per Sabrina Imbler at the New York Times.

Next, the Entomological Society’s Better Common Names project will put together working groups that include experts who study the species and people from the insect’s native regions to decide on a new name. The organization will also seek a new name for Aphaenogaster araneoides, commonly called the “gypsy ant.”

Terry McGlynn, the entomologist who named the ant species and has since recognized the implications of the moniker, said on Twitter that the decision to replace the name is “great news.”

“We’re professionals, trying to advocate for entomology,” says McGlynn to Caroline Anders at the Washington Post. “We don’t have to insult people in the process.”

The moth Lymantria dispar dispar is a common, invasive species in North America that arrived from Europe in 1869. The caterpillars eat the leaves of more than 300 species of trees and shrubs, and an outbreak can result in defoliation: trees that are stripped bare of their leaves.

There is now an outbreak of the caterpillars in New England, per Keely Aouga and Evan Simko-Bednarski at CNN, and central Canada, reports CBC News. In 2020, the caterpillars defoliated a record-breaking 2,240 square miles of trees in Canada, and the outbreak in Vermont is the worst that the state has seen since the 1980s. (The Ontario invasive species management program calls the insects “LDD moths,” an abbreviation of the scientific name, instead of the common name.)

“Roma are dehumanized in so many ways: being associated with insects, being associated with animals,” says Margareta Matache, the director of Harvard University’s Roma Program at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, to the Washington Post. “And that is really how structural anti-Roma racism is justified.”

The Romani people are Europe’s largest ethnic minority. For over five centuries they were enslaved in Romania, and they were victims of genocide during the Holocaust. Today they are vilified by politicians, denied access to housing and subjected to racist attacks, per Smithsonian magazine’s Brigit Katz in 2019. University of Texas at Austin professor Ian Hancock, a former United Nations representative for the Romani people, tells the Washington Post that the use of the pejorative in species names is linked to negative stereotypes.

“These all play into one of the stereotypes; in story books we ‘wander’ and ‘roam,’ but as history clearly shows, we were not allowed to stop, and had no choice but to keep moving on,” says Hancock to the Post in an email.

In March, the Entomological Society approved new policies for naming insects that “bar names referencing ethnic or racial groups and names that might stoke fear” and “discourage geographic references, particularly for invasive species,” per the Washington Post.

Other scientific disciplines have also faced reckonings over how species are named. Last year, ornithologists called for renaming birds like the McCown’s longspur, a Great Plains species named for a Confederate general who was also involved with forcible relocations of Native Americans.

In the future, the Entomological Society will probably choose new names for species before removing the old name from the list in order to minimize confusion. The Entomological Society consulted with Matache, activist Victoria Rios and Ethel Brooks, an expert in Romani history at Rutgers University, while reviewing the formal request to remove the names of the moth and ant from the recognized list of common names.

“If people are feeling excluded because of what we call something, that’s not acceptable,” says Entomological Society president Michelle Smith to the New York Times. “We’re going to make changes to be a welcoming and inclusive society for all entomologists.”

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