The decision to rename both the “gypsy moth” and the “gypsy ant” coincides with the launch of the organization’s Better Common Names Project. Though the change is specific to the society and its publications, it’s anticipated to ripple outward.
“We know that entomology is not going to change the world from an equity standpoint, but this is one thing we can do,” Chris Stelzig, ESA’s executive director, said in an interview Sunday.
The invasive species of moth has hairs with air pockets that allow them to float on gusts of wind as larvae and become destructive as caterpillars. They are considered a pest, and numerous exterminating companies advise on how to eliminate outbreaks.
The Romani people, enslaved in Romania for more than 500 years, are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “gypsies.” They were victims of persecution and genocide during the Holocaust, and the community still faces human rights abuses and marginalization.
“Roma are dehumanized in so many ways: being associated with insects, being associated with animals,” said Margareta Matache, director of the Roma Program at Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. “And that is really how structural anti-Roma racism is justified.”
The word “gypsy” comes from England, Matache said, at a time when the English mistakenly thought Roma were Egyptians. The push to stop referring to Roma as “gypsies” started more than a century ago, though some Roma have reclaimed the word. In a 2020 study that Matache helped conduct, 35 percent of Romani Americans surveyed said they consider “gypsy” a racial slur.
She called the decision to rename the insects a “historic step” and said she hopes to see similar language shifts.
“We are a people, and we want others around us to see our humanity, our culture and our history,” she said.
Ian Hancock, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and former representative for the Romani people at the United Nations, said he was pleased by the decision, which was shared Wednesday. The word “gypsy,’ he explained, was probably associated with the moths and ants because of their “rootlessness.”
“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,” he wrote in an email.
Stelzig said the conversation about renaming the moth had come up before, but the ESA received its first formal request to change the name around October.
The society’s Better Common Names Project will take community input and consider making appropriate changes. The ESA governing board in March 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.”
The entomologist who named the lesser-known of the two insects in question — the ant known as Aphaenogaster araneoides — told The Washington Post that he was relieved to hear that the name was being stripped from the ESA’s database, which identifies more than 2,000 species.
Terry McGlynn, who has been studying this species for more than 20 years, wrote a blog post in 2019 titled: “Fixing a racist common name that I coined.”
He discovered in 2000 that this type of ant moves its nests on a periodic basis within a set number of locations, and he said a colleague suggested calling it the “gypsy ant” because of the phenomenon.
It wasn’t until years later that McGlynn fully realized the implications of the name, he said. After reading an article about the Romani people and going down an Internet rabbit hole, he realized the word is “entirely offensive.”
McGlynn, a professor of biology at California State University at Dominguez Hills and the incoming director of the school’s Desert Studies Center, said changing the name is just a matter of respecting people’s wishes.
“We’re professionals, trying to advocate for entomology,” he said. “We don’t have to insult people in the process.”
Further research on other ant species has shown that the name wasn’t entirely accurate, either, McGlynn said. Many kinds of ants exhibit the behaviors that led to this species’s name.
Stelzig said a few people have raised concerns that abandoning the common names of the moth and ant before choosing new names will be confusing, but he anticipates new names to be chosen before old ones are stripped in future cases.
In the meantime, the society is searching for new names for the two insects. Anyone can apply to join a working group to research new options through its website.
Stelzig said a couple of other common names have already been submitted for renaming consideration, though he wouldn’t say which. McGlynn said he’s interested in seeing the “crazy ant,” which is named for the quick and erratic way it runs, renamed to something that isn’t pejorative toward people with mental illness.