Offensive scientific names

There’s already a topic about offensive common names, but this is about scientific names. Often there are flags about potentially offensive common names (and rightly so). What I don’t see as often is flags when scientific name are potentially, or actually, offensive.

This topic is prompted by

Should we be thinking about changing scientific names (Not via iNat obviously but in a more general sense) if they’re offensive?


Very interesting thread. My position is that, while there are obvious candidates (like those in the article), the limit of being offensive is unclear and not well-defined. If we decide to change Anophthalmus hitleri to another name, should we change Alvania napoleoni too? What about the genus Attila? And all the species named after Incan and Aztec Emperors? Brachypanorpa jeffersoni? Caligula? Acrogonyleptes cheguevarai?

What I think is that, if we are going to perform a revision of scientific names to avoid any offense, we should do it in a thorough, extensive and unbiased method.


Honestly I don’t really see a reason to change the rules around the invariability of scientific names, even if they are offensive to some people. Obviously, this is a very slippery slope, where would you determine that a person’s negative contributions outweigh their positive contributions? Many tropical species are named after European explorers who, while contributing greatly to natural history, had abhorrent views about the native people who lived in the places they explored. Should we rename every single taxon named after them? Scientific names should be stable and unchanging (or, for taxa with a lot of taxonomic flux, at least traceable), not just another reflection on what people find palatable or not. However, I do think that standardized common names should be changed where they might be offensive or discriminatory.


Offensive is a subjective concept. Somebody may eventually find donaldtrumpi offensive (yes, there are some species), somebody may find obamai (yes, there are too). There would be no end and no point.


That’s true. But if that’s the case why worry about common names?

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For plants - iNat’s source is POWO. Where the ‘name’ is a code (like a bar or QR) and the name in words we use changes as the taxonomists go to work. So no problem there.

42 comments on the original … I’ll be back.
But on earlier threads, we would prefer names that mean something about the taxon. Not about a random person with no connection. (Our toktokkie beetles have been renamed by a Polish scientist. After his 2 daughters) Maria and Zofia I am looking at you. Not offensive, but meaningless for our beetles.


Nearly noone likes name changes, except those that don’t use them


Common names are inherently flexible and can be revised, discarded, replaced for any number of reasons. Scientific names are meant to be stable, even with taxonomic revisions, and can’t simply be tossed out because some one doesn’t like them.


One that immediately comes to my mind is Pachliopta/Losaria coon (NOT pronounced like the racial slur and with different etymology!!)- a very unfortunate name for a spectacular butterfly

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Yeah, I guess that’s the point of this discussion

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There’s no offensive word unless you feel it is, just don’t give any mesh of letters a meaning that would offence you.


Marina, I agree. I am in the camp that a word has to be used in an offensive manner for it to be offensive (with a few exceptions). I see flags for common names that have names that might/can be offensive. Fair enough. I see very few (actually I’ve never seen any) for a scientific name


I am not sure what to think now that I know there are donaldtrumpi and obamai species

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This is something I’ve given some thought to as well- an interesting discussion. There’s a very common North American stink bug species called Euschistus servus. Servus basically translates to servant or slave. Given how frequently these must have been encountered by those forced to work in plantations, we can see where the name came from. Plus, this species can be problematic in agricultural settings. I’m not wild about the pest species being known as the slave stink bug.


Words mean things to people, even if we don’t want them to, and in ways other than offense:

The article from OP states that nazi memorabilia collectors are driving the hitler beetle to extinction because they want to collect it, ostensibly because of the name. So could there be an argument to change the scientific name to save the beetle?

We aren’t a big fan of arguments to “do nothing because you can’t please everyone.” We fear such arguments can actually allow perpetuation of systemic oppression. (We are not accusing anyone here of intentionally perpetuating systemic oppression.)

Coming up with standards is troubling, challenging, difficult. We just don’t want the difficulty to be a reason to not consider ways that systems oppress people. And language seems to us part of how systems can oppress people.

In the US, some sports teams with Indigenous nicknames consult Indigenous peoples and act according to their wishes. Some organizations do not consult others. One group, the Seminoles of Florida, apparently appreciate the Florida State nickname and symbols used:

One does not have to be Seminole to have an opinion about the nickname; and maybe not every Seminole or Indigenous individual appreciates the nickname. However, Seminole representatives were consulted. First Peoples are oppressed here and so how they are treated, including through language, matters to us.

Easy to change names? No. Worth considering anyway. We believe so via a lens of equality and ending oppression.


If you name someone who is even remotely famous (or infamous) there will be a species named after them.


Respectfully but strongly disagree. Derogatory terms dehumanize and make violence more palpable for others. Just because a scientific name isn’t going to be acutely dangerous doesn’t mean that it can’t carry a legacy of historical violence.


They do that because you think they do, any term can get a new meaning, as many of them did and became more violent we can change them to be normal and mean normal things again. I’m sorry, but there’s enough real violence and people who feel it care about more important things than some words. Instead of fighting with words we could do something against real crime, real opression.


The ICZN does have a code of ethics that says: No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds. But that’s for new names and presumably has no effect on established names that are now viewed as offensive.


Kevin (the author of the article I linked) is a user here on iNat. Maybe he’ll see this and reply. I think that’d be cool

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