Meet the Spongy Moth, Whose Old Name Contained an Offensive Term

Meet the Spongy Moth, Whose Old Name Contained an Offensive Term

Having removed the pejorative name “gypsy moth” last July, the Entomological Society of America officially renamed Lymantria dispar. 

The Entomological Society of America unanimously voted last week to adopt the common name “spongy moth” for the species Lymantria dispar. The moth had been nameless for about eight months, after the society removed the former common name — “gypsy moth,” based on a term that many Romani people view as derogatory — from its list of common names in July.

“Spongy” refers to the moth’s fluffy, porous egg masses, which had inspired the species’ existing common name in France and French-speaking Canada: “spongieuse.” The new name is effective immediately.

“I feel heartened,” Margareta Matache, instructor and director of the Roma Program at Harvard University, wrote in an email. “Romani people won an important victory today.”

“It takes an ethnic slur out of common parlance,” said Jessica Ware, the president of the society and an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. “It’s going to have a really big impact.”

Dr. Matache, who was born in Romania, first learned about the moth’s offensive name when she moved to the United States in 2012. “I felt devastated,” she said. “It was created by white Europeans, it carries a painful history and it’s offensive,” she added, noting that some Romani groups in Britain embrace the term.

The Entomological Society of America maintains a list of approved common names for insects in order to standardize how people refer to species. In early 2021, the society adopted new rules banning references to ethnicities, races or groups of people in common names.

The lengthy renaming process began last July. The society officially removed the pejorative from L. dispar and Aphaenogaster araneoides, formerly called the “gypsy ant.” To select a new name, it assembled a group of entomologists, researchers and professionals who work with the species, and people who identify as i, including Dr. Matache. The society also formed the Better Common Names Project, to review other common names that may be offensive or inappropriate.

The working group received hundreds of submissions from the public. It dropped some, such as “frowny cyclops,” because they were not serious suggestions. Many others were dropped because they were further variations on pejorative names or stereotypes of the Romani people. “It felt like they were insisting to keep this insect related to Romani people,” Dr. Matache said, adding that she was grateful to non-Roma members of the group who pointed out this racism.

After the working group debated seven finalists, spongy moth emerged as the winner. The new name refers to the 10 months the insect spends in the egg cycle of its short life.

Leigh Greenwood, a forest health program director at The Nature Conservancy and a member of the working group, adding said the new name “has really good historical and social precedent.”

Dr. Greenwood, who grew up outside New York City, often saw spongy moths, their furry caterpillars and their porous egg masses plastered to trees. In North America, the moth is an invasive species that can strip trees and shrubs of their leaves, sometimes leading to tree death or wildfires and causing significant environmental damage. “It’s tremendously visible and very expensive to deal with,” Ms. Greenwood said.

That will make updating the moth’s name wherever it is used is no easy feat. “Websites, handouts, pesticide labels; both federal, state and international regulations,” Ms. Greenwood said. “It’s going to cost a lot of real money and time, and it’s important and worth it.”

As such, the Better Common Names Project published a guide to switching to to the new name and set March 2023 as an encouraged date for full adoption.

The project has taken input since last summer on other potentially problematic names and plans to have a list by summer of the next names they will seek to replace, according to Joe Rominiecki, the communications manager at the society. One possibility that the entomological community has discussed are insects considered pests that are named after geographic places, Mr. Rominiecki said.

Ms. Greenwood offered the Japanese beetle as an example. “They try to exterminate it, they try to prevent it, and the language used for those control efforts can become extremely, clearly xenophobic,” she said.

Other biological groups, such as genes and plants, have no formal body that governs common names, Ms. Greenwood said. In her eyes, the project is “a great example of a community-based process really could kind of lead the way for plants and animals that don’t have a body that holds names.”

“In science, academic spaces and our societies, we should leave no room for dehumanization, racism and exploitation of cultures,” Dr. Matache said.

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