Update on fixing a racist common name for an ant (and a moth)


A couple years ago, I shared with y’all about an old screwup of mine, and how I was planning to take steps to fix it.

To make the long story short, I explained how I had coined a new official common name for the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides, back in a prior decade. I only realized later that this name was problematic and constituted a racial slur.

The good news is that problem is fixed, thanks to the leadership of colleagues running the “Better Common Names Project” in the Entomological Society of America. So the former common name of A. araneoides is now surpressed as of this week, and now we can just call it A. araneoides. Which is fine with me. After mulling over a variety of alternative common names, I realize this species doesn’t need a common name.

While I’ve been concerned about this for a few years, I wasn’t able to change this when I wrote the original blog post. Because it was an official common name approved by the Entomological Society of America (a status that I had applied for back in the day), then this change would also have to be approved the common names committee of the ESA. After some informal inquiry, I was led to believe that a name change would be contentious and not likely to be approved — in part because there was a moth named with the same slur (and a worse entomological etymology), and the major economic and environmental role of this species, with broad use of the common name, would mean it would be an uphill battle. So what did I do? Well, I have to admit, I did very little. I was mulling over how I would go about my proposal to the committee, and was trying to find a new and better common name, but simply stalled. And then the movement last summer related to civil rights awareness seems to have resulted in a change of heart in the ESA, also with a change of leadership. So now, now only were they open to suppressing the old common name — they took the matter into their own hands and did it without me formally asking. How about that, eh?

It’s nice to see this kind of tangible movement on this issue in my professional society. I realize that of course there is a long, long, long way to go to build an equitable community of scientists, and that we’ve seen very little or no actual progress in the past few decades. Just look at all that money that has been poured into diversity initiatives, that hasn’t changed the composition of our field. So clearly, we need to do more, and do things differently. Is changing a common name going to fix all that? Of course not. But it’s a slight indicator that folks are more willing to change now than they were two years ago.

I’ve talked to a few media outlets about this, and if you wanted to dig into the news about this, that’s straightforward enough. But feel free to discuss this here and I’m glad to discuss this in the comments here.

3 thoughts on “Update on fixing a racist common name for an ant (and a moth)

  1. This is so ridiculous! The term ‘gypsy’ is in common parlance and many such itinerants are proud of their way of life and would surely be equally proud to share it with a moth? We are in danger of losing all sense of proportion in these matters and should get back to real life!

    • It’s actually the Roma people themselves who are asking for the term ‘gypsy’ to be retired. Maybe thinking about such things isn’t “real life” for you, but it clearly is to them. It’s common decency to call people what they ask to be called. Lots of racial slurs used to be “common parlance,” it is through efforts like this that they drop out of usage.

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