Let me introduce you to one of my favorite animals, Aphaenogaster araneoides, and a major league screwup of mine:
image: Benoit Guenard
These ants are absolutely charming. Where they occur in Central America, they are quite common, and it’s easy to glance to the ground, spot a forager ambling on its long legs with just a modicum of awkwardness, looking to bring a bug back home. Their specific epithet, “araneoides,” is a reference to its spider-like appearance. (There is a jumping spider that is a striking mimic, and it seems to specialize on eating them.)
In the summer of 2000, I had a couple weeks for a side project with some students. I noticed that these very common ants had a mostly undescribed biology. The more I studied them, they became curiouser and curiouser, so I did a series of short projects on an adventitious basis over a long period of time. Each colony has multiple nests — this is pretty common. What is weird is that they only occupied a single nest at a time. They maintained a territory, groomed empty nests, and bounced back and forth between them, moving on average once per week. (I call this behavior “serial monodomy.”) These ants were always on the move.
I was now working on an animal that lacked a common name. That is a readily fixable problem. I could just start referring to them by a particular name, and then propose the name to the official committee on insect common names with the Entomological Society of America.
Chatting with a couple friends at the field station, a buddy of mine came up with what I thought was a witty and charming suggestion: why not call them “gypsy ants?” They are itinerant critters that move from one place to another, with a number of specific places they will stay temporarily, but never occupy a single one permanently. That sounds like a pleasant way to encapsulate serial monodomy in a common name. I went with that, and to this day, it’s the common name. Other lab groups have adopted the name for other ants in the same genus that exhibit the same nest movement behavior.
I honestly don’t remember what I was thinking at the time. Was I aware that “gypsy” was considered as an epithet by Romani people? Did I blithely choose this common name without regard to others, or was I not aware? I wish I knew, I just don’t recall my mindset at the time. I’d like to think my choice was based on ignorance of the negativity of the term, rather than being aware of this concern and making the choice regardless, but ultimately this is moot because the outcome is what matters.
Nobody has told me that this name is inappropriate. Several years ago, someone who I hold in high esteem referred to them in a trade book for a general audience, indicating that they were “delightfully named.” I’ve used the name regularly for many years, and not had a whiff of blowback. Nonetheless, I’ve become concerned, and it’s been clear for more than a short while that I made a bad decision to describe the ants using an ethnic slur, and I need to fix it. I think over the years, I have met a couple people who identify as Roma, though I think these folks are mostly off of the radar of most scientists in North America on a day to day basis. This doesn’t make the name any less problematic.
Perhaps you don’t think it’s much of a problem. And maybe you’ve heard of the term “slave-making ants,” which although this is inappropriate, it still is in common use as well. I’m not going to go into an extended argument for why common names for insects shouldn’t involve references to the horror of human bondage and the use of ethnic slurs or stereotypes, but perhaps this image produced by the National Congress of American Indians can do the arguing for me:
Soon, I will be sending in a proposal to the common names committee to abolish the name currently used for A. araneoides. I think this will be a more convincing proposal if I come up with an alternative common name that reflects the biology of the species and isn’t racist. Do you have any suggestions? I haven’t thought of a good one yet. It’s very easy to propose a common name, and typing preparing this blog post is taking more time than this proposal will probably take. But I want to be sure to get it right, so please add some suggested common names in the comments!
Meanwhile, there are still gypsy moths, a much heavily monitored and studied species that is an invasive pest in North America. I don’t know the story of the origin of that common name, which is used by a massive number of researchers. That’s a discussion worth having, too, I think.