Gypsy moth name change announced for equity reasons
In a summer when gypsy moth caterpillars are defoliating large swaths of woodlands in Pennsylvania, perhaps most notably in the Allegheny National Forest, it will no doubt interest Keystone State residents to know that the invasive insect’s name has been changed by scientists for equity reasons.
The Entomological Society of America recently announced that it would stop using the moniker because it contains an ethnic slur. The decision to rename the gypsy moth, which has been in North America since 1869 and in Pennsylvania since 1932, coincides with the launch of the organization’s Better Common Names Project. But a new name has not yet been chosen.
The change was made because 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 reportedly faces human rights abuses and marginalization.
“Roma are dehumanized in so many ways: being associated with insects, being associated with animals,” Margareta Matache, director of the Roma Program at Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights was recently quoted in a story about the moth’s name change.
The word “gypsy” comes from England, she noted, 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. 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. But whatever we call them, gypsy moths have been causing significant forest damage in Pennsylvania since the 1970s. The most recent outbreak occurred from 2013 to 2019, and another outbreak is occurring right now. The insects have killed thousands of acres of trees — primarily oaks — on public and private lands alike.
This spring the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, attempting to reduce a boom in the gypsy moth population, sprayed for the caterpillars in 19 counties in southcentral, central, northcentral and northwest Pennsylvania.
The Bureau of Forestry oversaw spraying of biological insecticides in May by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft on 146 sites on 203,569 acres of state forests, parks and game lands, and part of the Allegheny National Forest.