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As gypsy moths are renamed due to ‘racial slur’, who or what will the language police target next?

Frank Furedi
Frank Furedi

is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

is an author and social commentator. He is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Author of How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. Follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte

As gypsy moths are renamed due to ‘racial slur’, who or what will the language police target next?
Insects are the latest battleground in the culture wars with potentially offensive names cancelled. While this seems ridiculous, it’s just the latest step towards thought control by dictating what can and cannot be said.

Should I laugh or should I cry when I discover that we are not supposed to refer to that pesky insect which chews through the leaves of trees as a gypsy moth? I cannot think of anyone who is in the least bit offended by the term gypsy moth. However, just in case someone might be traumatised by the use of this term, in a preventive strike the Entomological Society of America (ESA) has decided to ‘remove’ it from its list of approved names.

Evidently, the ESA has decided not to be left out of the culture wars so it has launched a review into insect names that “may be inappropriate or offensive”. In a world where offence archaeology has become a growth industry, it was only a matter of time before the naming of insects was brought into the frame. From now on the gypsy moth will be identified by that widely known and popular term, ‘lymantria dispar’.

Predictably, the term gypsy ant has also been cancelled just in case it causes trauma to a member of the Roma community. So, get ready to use the catchy term ‘aphaenogaster araneoides’ in its place.

It seems that it is only a matter of time before virtually every well-known name for a creature will become a target of the language police. The ESA has asked the public to help draw any potentially offensive insect name to its attention. How long before the Asian needle ant or the West Indian weevil disappears from the public view?

The ESA has also mobilised experts to assist its new cause. Its Better Common Names project will put together working groups that include experts who study the species and people from the insects’ native regions to decide on a new offence-free appellation.

And it appears that the experts are more than delighted to sign up to join the language police. Terry McGlynn, the entomologist who named the ant species and has since recognized that he was on the wrong side of the angels, said on Twitter that the decision to replace the name is “great news.”

McGlynn told Caroline Anders of The Washington Post, “We’re professionals, trying to advocate for entomology. We don’t have to insult people in the process.” 

Some of us who believed that the term gypsy conveyed the connotation of a free and nomadic individual will be surprised to discover that the ESA considers it to be a racial slur. But we live in a world where from one day to the next, the language police might decide that we can no longer refer to the Oriental rat flea nor even the Norway rat flea.

Since the ascendancy of linguistic policing in the 1990s, the campaign to change the language we use has become increasingly bizarre and obtrusive. Which university moralist first dreamt up the idea that the word ‘brainwashing’ is an inappropriate term that scandalises individuals suffering from epilepsy? Or insisted that we use ‘thought shower’ instead of brainstorming?

One struggles to grasp why the Inclusive Language Guide of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, has decided that the term ‘stone age’ is inappropriate and must be replaced by the more appropriate term of ‘complex and diverse societies’. A review of university guidelines on inappropriate language indicates that even the most innocent of speech acts can become a target of linguistic vilification. “Asking for someone’s first name and/or last name is also inappropriate for the naming practices of various cultural and ethnic groups living in Australia,” advised the University of Melbourne’s expert on appropriate language and behaviour.

Taken on its own terms, it is possible to dismiss and joke about the campaign to rid our vocabulary of the term gypsy moth. But matters are far more serious when even words that are foundational to human civilisation and existence are forced off our linguistic map. 

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In recent times, even the word ‘woman’ has become a target of the language police. The language zealots want to displace pregnant women with that ugly ideologically driven phrase ‘birthing people’. They want to displace breast feeding with chestfeeding. They insist that teachers stop referring to girls and boys and refer to youngsters in gender-neutral language as children.

The project of altering our language is not simply about what words we are allowed to use. Once they are able to determine what we cannot say, it is only a small step to being told what we cannot think. Little by little, they seek to colonise our minds so that they can control human behaviour.

What’s at stake may seem like a pesky tiny insect. But once our language can be so casually changed because an organisation has decided that it does not like a word’s connotation, it is only a matter of time before we end up in a world inhabited by birthing and non-birthing people.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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