Group asks public to help change offensive name of moth

Bug experts want to change the common name of the gypsy moth because it's considered an ethnic slur and they're asking the public to help them.

The Entomological Society of America, which oversees the common names of bugs, is getting rid of the common name of that critter and the lesser-known gypsy ant. The group this week announced that for the first time it changed a common name of an insect because it was offensive. In the past, they've only reassigned names that weren't scientifically accurate.

"It’s an ethnic slur to begin with that's been rejected by the Romani people a long time ago," said society president Michelle S. Smith. "Second, nobody wants to be associated with a harmful invasive pest."

The same was done in Minnesota, which decided to change the name of the Asian carp to invasive carp to avoid negative effects on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans.

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The moths are invasive and destructive critters in the caterpillar stage. They have a voracious appetite that can denude entire forests of leaves, said University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, a past society president.

The moths likely got their name because as larvae they have hair with small air pockets that act like balloons allowing them to float for miles, wandering like the group of people they were named after, Berenbaum said. Another theory is that male adult moths have a tan color that could be similar to Romani people.

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The Entomological Society is now on the hunt for a new common name, a process that will take months, Smith said. Until then, even though it’s a mouthful, Smith said the moths should be called by their scientific name, Lymantria dispar or L. dispar.

Anyone interested in renaming the Lymantria dispar is asked to fill out this form.

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Berenbaum — who has written about weirdly named plants, animals, and gene mutations — said given the moths' destructiveness, she and others would have some ideas for a descriptive new name.

"You’re not allowed to use obscenities," she said, "so that’s out."

With The Associated Press.