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A common moth pest had a slur in its name; now it's getting a makeover


OK. This is a real situation. You've got the common name for a widely recognized forest pest, and that common name contains a racial slur. So how do you rename it? Jane Lindholm of Vermont Public Radio has the story of a moth who's getting a makeover. And we should warn, we are going to identify that slur in this story.

JANE LINDHOLM, BYLINE: Last summer where I live in western Vermont, some of our normally lush green forests turned into post-apocalyptic landscapes as millions of marauding caterpillars chewed their way through the foliage, stripping trees bare and raining poop down on unsuspecting hikers. Jessica Ware is president of the Entomological Society of America.

JESSICA WARE: They basically, like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, are just chewing their way through deciduous forests. But it's actually, like, a very huge economic devastation that we're talking about for Lymantria dispar.

LINDHOLM: And we've been talking about Lymantria dispar a lot in places this moth is doing damage, except people have been using its common name, Gypsy Moth. And Ware says that's a problem.

WARE: There's no need, really, in 2022 to have racial slurs in insect names.

LINDHOLM: So last year, the Entomological Society ramped up an initiative 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. And not to keep you waiting, this moth now has an official new name - Spongy Moth. The egg masses of this species are kind of spongy-looking as they overwinter on trees. And that name fits well with what the moth is called in other languages and countries.

MAGDA MATACHE: I love the new name, Spongy Moth.

LINDHOLM: Magda Matache is a Romani scholar and director of The Roma Program at Harvard University. She was part of the core group working to change the old name.

MATACHE: It equated our people to insects. And, second, Gypsy is considered a racial slur by many Romani people. It carries a very painful history, and it is offensive.

LINDHOLM: Of course, changing the name of one insect is just a small step in combating anti-Romani racism.

MATACHE: But yet it is an extraordinary step that can push others to demand name change of businesses, events, websites, fashion collections, cakes, drinks, food that include the G-word.

LINDHOLM: And 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 saying, you know, the thing that used to be called, whatever. But for this moth, the current multiyear outbreak we're in is actually a good thing. It gives people a lot of opportunity to practice the new name - Spongy Moth. For NPR News, I'm Jane Lindholm in Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.