Efforts are on the rise to change geographic and institutional names that are offensive. For example:

  • Last year, Toronto council voted to rename Dundas Street, named for Scottish politician Henry Dundas, who played a part in delaying the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
  • Also in 2021, Ryerson University in Toronto voted to get rid of its namesake. Egerton Ryerson was a major influence on the design of the residential school system.
  • In January 2022, Parks Canada announced that the Pocahontas Campground in Jasper National Park will be known as the Miette Campground (until a permanent name is found).
  • In February, the NFL’s Washington franchise officially changed their team name from Redskins to Commanders (after years of pressure).
  • Just last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that all geographic features on federal lands that include the word “squaw” will be renamed. That affects more than 650 lakes, creeks, valleys and other sites.
  • Soon, Cape Negro in Nova Scotia’s Shelburne County will have a new name. In December 2021, residents were surveyed about the short list of candidates: Peaceful Haven, Cape Perseverance, Cape Freedom, Cape Hope and Herbertville.

Such changes are welcome. Our understanding of the past constantly changes. That’s not erasing history. It’s called progress.

In an inclusive society, we should carefully consider (or reconsider) the words we use to label places and things. Animals too.

Some animals get a bad name. This has nothing to do with their supposed reputation – we’ll get to that. No, I’m talking about their actual handles.

Species designations can cause offence

This month, the Entomological Society of America, which makes the Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List, renamed the species Lymantria dispar as “spongy moth”, replacing the name “gypsy moth”. The previous name is considered an ethnic slur for the Romani people.

It’s not the only problematic animal name.

Four species of carp – silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp and black carp – were brought to North America 50 years ago, and have been collectively known as Asian carp. These fish are native to East Asia, and cause harm when introduced to new environments. The carp species have been migrating north through U.S. waterways towards the Great Lakes, doing harm to native fish species and our ecosystems.

Last April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the designation of the species to invasive carp. “We wanted to move away from any terms that cast Asian culture and people in a negative light,” said Charlie Wooley, director of the agency’s Great Lakes regional office.

Other names reveal a troubled history. The Scott’s oriole is named for Winfield Scott, a U.S. military commander who was part of the displacement and killing of thousands of Indigenous Americans. There are calls to change the name.

That already happened with the McCown’s longspur, named after slave-owning Confederate general John McCown. In 2020, the American Ornithological Society stopped using that name, instead going for thick-billed longspur.

Then there’s Townsend’s warbler. It was named by American naturalist John Kirk Townsend, who, as environmental journalist John Platt noted, “described dozens of species in the early 19th century — right around the same time he was stealing human remains from Native American grave sites and shipping the skulls back East to help support a friend’s racist theory that Indigenous peoples were actually separate species.”

A movement called Bird Names for Birds advocates using more descriptive labels. They note that many current eponymous bird names honour people associated with colonialism and racism.

The slurs of perceived qualities

The debate about offensive animal names took a different turn last year, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for an end to using animal names as slurs. Their examples: using chicken for cowardice, pig for dirty, sloth for lazy, and snake for treacherous.

Such insults are “speciesist”, said PETA.

There are plenty of other animal names that people toss around to disparage. Like sheep (conformist), ostrich (not facing reality), goose (silly), batty (crazy), catty (spiteful/hurtful), jackass (incompetent), whale (fat), and leech (exploitive).

I’d say branding could help, but in the non-marketing sense that’s a painful topic for some animals.

Many news accounts and social media posts mocked PETA’s announcement. I get it. Are these terms really comparable to racial and other slurs? And just who is the victim here?

But consider the logic.

One of the ways that people have always made it easier to perpetuate violence on other people is by dehumanizing them – calling them beasts, rats, cockroaches, vermin, etc.

So, are we degrading animals when we use them to describe negative human characteristics? Might that make it just a little easier to mistreat, devalue or kill certain animals?

Of course, we use animal idioms all the time, and most are benign. Happy as a clam. Busy as a bee. Lone wolf. Horse sense. Eager beaver. Squirrel away. Top dog. Get your ducks in a row. Lion’s share. Fly on the wall. Cash cow.

Words matter. The animals don’t know we’re using some of their names as slurs. And they don’t know who they’re named after. But we do.

We should always think hard about which names we honour, and which we reserve for insults. Because it can open a can of worms.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

March 9, 2022

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