Insect scientists want your help renaming bugs with racist names


The Entomological Society of America is officially getting with the times.

The insect science group announced on Wednesday that the insects formally known as Aphaenogaster araneoides and Lymantria dispar will no longer be referred to as “gypsy ants” and “gypsy moths,” respectively. The word that appears in each insect’s “common” name is a racial slur for Romani people, and the ESA has decided that its use has no place in the modern world.

“The purpose of common names is to make communication easier between scientists and the public audiences they serve. By and large, ESA’s list of recognized insect common names succeeds in this regard, but names that are unwelcoming to marginalized communities run directly counter to that goal,” ESA President Michelle S. Smith, BCE said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

It’s a welcome change. Names like these are insidiously harmful, quietly perpetuating the use of slurs that have otherwise disappeared from daily speech. And while the ESA is dropping these two monikers immediately, the announcement is one piece of a larger effort to re-think the common names of insects more broadly.

The group’s Better Common Names Project is just what it sounds like: An effort to root out any examples of problematic names on the ESA Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List. The effort starts with a task force that will be looking at: names containing “derogative terms,” names for invasive bugs that include “inappropriate geographic references,” and names “that inappropriately disregard what the insect might be called by native communities.”

The first phase of this sprawling effort is where we, the people of the internet, come in. While it’s not the kind of situation that could end with a fleet of Buggy McBugface-style names, the ESA is soliciting input from the public.

Part of the problem is the list itself: There are lots of bugs out there, and not necessarily a clear view of what’s offensive or problematic to one group or another. So the public input period is meant, in part, to help the ESA pinpoint the names that need to be changed to begin with.

There’s a short, web-based form right here that lets people select an insect from the (extremely long) Common Names list and explain in detail why its name should be changed. People who fill out the form can also say whether or not they’d volunteer to join the to-be-created working group that will be tasked with researching and proposing a new name.

If you’re specifically interested in helping to work out new common names for Aphaenogaster araneoides and Lymantria dispar, there’s a separate form just for that. The ESA is asking people to refer to those insects by their Latin names for now, until new common names are worked out.

Technically speaking, the Better Common Names Project is an expansion of the ESA’s existing process for proposing changes to the common names list. But the ESA Governing Board approved a new set of rules for acceptable common names in March 2021, and those rules take a more specific stance on disallowing racial and geographical references in proposed names. This project, then, is the public face of those rule changes.

You can read more about the Better Common Names Project here.

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