On Wednesday, the Entomological Society of America announced that it would be removing “gypsy moth” and “gypsy ant” as recognized common names for two insects. For Ethel Brooks, a Romani scholar, the move is long overdue.
As a child in New Hampshire, Dr. Brooks saw worms and caterpillars crawl over her hand. But a certain caterpillar, the hairy larvae of the species Lymantria dispar, frightened them. The larvae swarmed and stripped the leaves off a tree, leaving so much damage that people sometimes referred to them as the “plague.” But nobody blamed L. dispar. Instead, they accused “gypsy moth caterpillars,” the common name of the species.
“This is how you see us,” recalled Dr. Brooks remembered thinking as a child. “We eat things and we destroy things around us.”
Dr. Brooks, now chair of the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has spoken out against the use of the pejorative in fashion and college parades, she said. But dr. Brooks never thought that the pejorative could be removed from its use in the staid field of science.
“It’s hideous and super racist and it’s hurtful,” she said. “But what can you do about it?”
The Entomological Society’s move marks the first time the group has removed a common name from an insect as it is offensive to a community of people, according to representatives of the society.
“When people feel excluded because of what we call it, it is unacceptable,” said Michelle Smith, society president. “We will make changes to be a welcoming and inclusive society for all entomologists.”
The news of the name change came as a welcome surprise to many in the scientific community, with some praising the decision on Twitter. “COURT!” entomologist Kevin Liam Keegan tweeted from his handle @MothPotato.
Although each species has a unique binomial scientific name, such as B. Lymantria dispar, many are better known by their common names. “Nobody calls a housefly Musca domestica,” said Chris Stelzig, executive director of the Entomological Society.
In the 20th century, the Entomological Society of America officially recognized a list of recognized common names to standardize the designation of many species of insects. The Society maintains a committee that reviews suggestions and makes recommendations for new or revised common names.
The group was aware that the moth’s common name, Lymantria dispar, was derogatory, and received their first formal request to remove the moth’s name from their list in 2020, Mr Stelzig said. The proposal went to the Common Name Committee, which proposed revising its Acceptable Common Name Policy. The committee also reached out to Romani scholars such as Dr. Brooks, Magda Matache, and Victoria Rios to hear their thoughts.
In March the board of directors of the organization approved these guidelines. In June they decided to remove the derogatory names of the moth and ant species. “They turned the recommendation very quickly,” Ms. Smith said.
In the months in between, Entomological Society staff put together the Better Common Names Project, a task force to review and replace offensive or inappropriate insect names. The project plans to recruit community-led working groups to propose new names that include people who study the insects or are from the region or where the insects originated, said Mr Stelzig. The project invites everyone to submit common names of insects that should be changed.
In recent years, many fields of science have started discussions about renaming species with objectionable common or scientific names, or even entire publications. In 2020, a scientific journal changed its name from Copeia – a name derived from the racist scientist Edward Cope – to ichthyology and herpetology. In 2020, an American Ornithological Society naming committee removed a Confederate general’s name from a bird, a proposal the committee initially rejected the previous year.
Bird Names for Birds, a campaign to remove all names of the same name – such as Bachman’s sparrow, named after a white man who enslaved people – submitted a letter with more than 2,500 signatures to the American Ornithological Society in June 2020, the company announced the Formation of an ad hoc committee to review the nomenclatures.
Some bird watchers, like Navin Sasikumar of Philadelphia, praised the Entomological Society’s “relatively quick” decision on moth and ant, saying the group’s five-step process was a laudable way to change common names.
Although the derogatory “gypsy” has now been removed from the records of an entomology group, it still appears in another scientific field: genetics. In February, Dr. Brooks received a message from Kevin Wei, a postdoctoral fellow working with fruit flies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Dr. Wei studies transposable elements, often referred to as “selfish” or jumping genes, for their ability to make copies of themselves and insert them back into the genome. A large family of these jumping genes is commonly referred to as “Gypsy jumping genes,” he said. As he stared at the names of these genes, he kept thinking: This is actually not okay.
“When Kevin got in touch, I thought it was just an incredible act of solidarity,” said Dr. Brooks.
Dr. Brooks, Dr. Wei and other researchers are now working on a paper calling for the bow to be removed from the field of genetics. They happened to have scheduled a meeting on the day the Entomological Society of America announced the name changes to plan their project and were thrilled with the news, said Dr. White
Lymantria dispar and Aphaenogaste-driven araneoides will most likely go without a common name for some time (though if you have any suggestions society would love to hear them). Meanwhile, if you see a hairy, defoliated caterpillar in New Hampshire, you can call it by its scientific name.