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New name, same destructive habits: Meet the Spongy Moth

Female spongy moths laying eggs on a tree in Vermont, 2021. The eggs overwinter on the tree and hatch the following spring.
Jane Lindholm/VPR
Female spongy moths laying eggs on a tree in Vermont, 2021. The eggs overwinter on the tree and hatch the following spring.

When the common name for a common forest pest contains a racial slur, how do you rename it?

The pest, in this case, is an invasive moth that's been devouring foliage, in its caterpillar stage, since the 1800s. It causes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage each year in the eastern United States.

"They basically, like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, are just chewing their way through deciduous forests," says Jessica Ware, president of the Entomological Society of America.

In addition to the damage this moth does to trees, its common name also contains an offensive racial slur. We'll name it here, once, so you know what we're talking about: the gypsy moth.

Acknowledging that "There's no need, really, in 2022 to have racial slurs in insect names," Ware was among the scientists and others who thought the moth needed a new name.

So, the Entomological Society ramped up an initiative last year called The Better Names Project to address this and other insects in need of rebranding.

The core group for this moth included 57 people of diverse backgrounds and lots of public suggestions and input. More than 200 new names were suggested—and rejected, in the end, in favor of this now official new name: spongy moth.

"Spongy" is in reference to the egg masses of this species, which are kind of spongy-looking as they overwinter on trees. Plus, this new name fits well with what the moth is called in other languages and countries. (In France and francophone Canada it's known as la spongieuse. In Turkey its name translates to sponge-knitter and in Germany it's sponge-spinner.)

Beyond fitting in with its name in other languages, this new terminology also removes some of the harm done by its previous name.

A Vermont hillside defoliated by hungry spongy moths in June of 2021.
/ Jane Lindholm/VPR
Jane Lindholm/VPR
A Vermont hillside defoliated by hungry spongy moths in June of 2021.

Magda Matache, a Romani scholar and director of the Roma Program at Harvard University, says the old name equated Romani people with insects, part of a long history of dehumanization. Plus, she says, "Gypsy is considered a racial slur by many Romani people. It carries a very painful history, and it is offensive."

Matache, who worked on this renaming project for more than a year, loves the new name. And she says while changing an insect name is a small step in combating anti-Romani racism, "It is an extraordinary step that can push others to demand name changes for businesses, events, websites, fashion collections, cakes, drinks, food that includes the G word."

It's not just the "G word". Americans are still coming to terms with name changes for all kinds of things, from national parks to academic and community buildings, to birds. It can take a while for these new names to catch on—and for people to stop referencing the old name to connect the dots.

But for the spongy moth, the name change comes at an ideal time. Those spongy egg masses are set to start hatching later this spring, giving people in outbreak areas plenty of opportunity to practice the new name.

Copyright 2022 Vermont Public

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer, and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. Until March 2021, she was the host of the award-winning Vermont Public Radio program Vermont Edition.

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