They Call It Worm. They Call It Lame. That’s Not Its Name.

Source: NC State University

They Call It Worm. They Call It Lame. That’s Not Its Name.

“Move over murder hornets. A new insect has people bugging out,” begins a segment for evening news viewers across the country. The story continues, but most can’t help but pause and question what just came out of their television speakers. Murder hornets?

Murder hornet has become the popularized name for Vespa mandarinia, but the established common name is simply Asian giant hornet — a name that describes where the insect is from and what it looks like. While in this case of this species the colloquial and standardized common name are quite different, common names aren’t always as straightforward as Asian giant hornet. They can be just as cryptic as the name murder hornet. 

“Sometimes common names are very misleading or they are not very informative,” says Adam Brunke, Chair of the Common Names Committee for the Entomological Society of Canada (ESC). “It’s a communication issue.”

However, ease of communication is exactly what a common name is for. They’re used to bridge the divide between those who study a field of biology, such as the study of insects called entomology, and those who don’t. So when a name fails to add ease, has confusing descriptors, or uses derogatory language, there’s a problem. 

These issues are what the Better Common Names Project aims to address. Led by the Entomological Society of America (ESA) and a steering committee made up of many ESC members, the Better Common Names Project involves revisiting common insect names, proposing new ones, and approving a new standard common name for both the United States and Canada. 

The first renaming for the project was for Lymantria dispar where the official common name “gypsy moth” was changed to “spongy moth” due to the term gypsy being an ethnic slur for the Romani people. The new name “spongy” refers to the insect’s distinct sponge-like egg masses. It’s a characteristic that’s unique to the insect and easy to understand. 

Spongy MothMale spongy moth (Lymantria dispar) // Credit: S. McCann; Source: Entomological Society of Canada

“What happens is that we don’t actually propose any names ourselves. We get proposals from the entomological community and they do some background research and provide a rationale. They explain why any existing names are appropriate or not appropriate,” Brunke says. “Normally, there’s two or three names that are already out there, or maybe the name exists in French, but not English, or vice versa. So this is a bit of a special case where we had a pest insect with a very, very dominant name.”

It’s easy to look at this project or renaming happening in any field as only a means of creating a more inclusive and equitable society. And while that’s certainly not a bad thing to consider, the main goal is to enable clear communication and understanding. 

Though we often learn and accept terms for what they are and can adapt to a pre-existing language, it doesn’t mean the language is as effective as it could be. In fact, it’s possible people may get the wrong idea of what an insect is or does if a name is too ambiguous or nondescript.

Take the case of a newly introduced tick in Canada.

“It was starting to get a lot of media attention because it is a potential disease vector.” 

A disease vector is something that carries and spreads disease, like an insect, which is definitely information that the broader community should be aware of. But the way in which this information is communicated should be done carefully. It was important that this insect be given a name that’s more than just clickbait. No one needs a new case of “murder hornets”.

“We were trying to use something neutral and something descriptive before it could, you know, sort of get out of hand or go in a direction we’d rather it not,” Brunke says, emphasizing that a common name should help someone identify an insect. This is especially important for those monitoring for a specific pest that may be harmful or damaging to the environment.

Murder Hornets

Murder hornet news headline // Source: Saanich News

Identifying, suggesting, and standardizing common names is definitely not a one-person job. After all, there are an estimated 10 quintillion insects out there. The collaborative effort of the entomological societies and the great entomological community are key for identifying what names work and what don’t. 

Though there are many experts and enthusiasts out there, it doesn’t necessarily mean they always have the answers about why a common name exists as it does. Their origin may ultimately remain unknown because no one documented the rationale and it’s because of this that a common name may come into question.

“That’s the problem. We never get the reasons for things.”

If there isn’t a well-understood reason for something or if in hindsight a reason isn’t very well justified, then there’s room for change. Just like science itself, it’s a process of hypothesizing, researching, and concluding. And if you don’t agree with the outcome, or in this case, the name? Create a new hypothesis, test it, and come up with a more acceptable, well-founded standard.

Amanda Schrack is a freelance writer from British Columbia. She has a BSc. in environmental science and loves exploring topics related to the interconnectedness of the natural world and society.