The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Out of fear of racism, Sweden changes the names of bird species

A group of herons, a large fish-eating wading bird rests while standing on the snow in Solna, north of Stockholm in January. (Jonathan Nsckstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
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Bird watching has long been a popular and seemingly harmless weekend activity in Sweden. Its innocence, however, came to an abrupt end when many of the country's bird lovers were suddenly confronted with allegations of racism.

For centuries, it has now been revealed, the Swedish had given birds some names that now could be considered offensive to certain groups. One species, for instance, was called "gypsy bird," whereas another was named "negro." The insult "caffer," which was used by white against blacks in South Africa, also resembled a Swedish bird species called "kaffer." There were other offensive bird names in Sweden, such as "Hottentot" — apparently inspired by the name of the language of an indigenous southwest African tribe called Khoikhoi, yet also a derogatory term for that tribe.

Despite the prominence of bird watching among Swedes, the existence of these names and others like them had sparked little outrage and publicity until recently. When Sweden's Ornithological Society completed its first-ever global list of all 10,709 Swedish bird names two weeks ago, the organization also announced some awkward name changes.

In the process of categorizing the names, staffers had raised concerns over some that had a potentially offensive nature. As a result, several of them have now been changed: "negro" bird, for instance, will now be called "black" bird. "When working on the list, it became obvious that some older names no longer were appropriate," Anders Wirdheim, Communications Officer at the Swedish Ornithological Society told The Washington Post.

Wirdheim does not think that the bird names should be used to draw broader conclusions about the Swedish society. "Out of thousands of names, there were only 10 which could be understood as condescending or even racist," he said. Nevertheless, Sweden's Ornithological Society was surprised by how serious some have taken the racism allegations. "We had expected a few responses, but certainly not the flood of comments that followed the publication," Wirdheim said.

"Here in Sweden, an overwhelming majority is for the changes we have implemented. However, the news has reached far beyond our borders and most outraged reactions have come from abroad."

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