A Matter of Words — an Essay on the Impact of Language we Choose

What’s in a word? Prefix, suffix, root… no matter the part, it’s the meaning that can have real impact on others. Words chosen unwisely can cause real harm throughout culture, and deserve critical consideration.

A Matter of Words – Essay - Antagonist
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May 17, 2021

Words – Cort Cunningham
Collage - Eric Mirbach

Even though it can feels like it’s ages ago at this point, looking at the language used by certain orange-faced ex-world-leader is a great way to start. Four years of this off-the-rails rhetoric has taught us a lot. When that guy went on one of his anti-immigrant tirades, when he referred to them as “animals”, said they were “infesting” the country, public outcry ensued, myself included. In hindsight, and not surprisingly, we know that the man’s words gave rise to an uptick in violence and hate crimes against this vulnerable population (or Capitol riots, for that matter).

As we all know, words matter.

The Unspeakable Harm done by Spoken Words

The language we use has consequences. Coupled with policies rooted in prejudice and nationalism, the parallels with Jews being described as rats and vermin before the Holocaust and Tutsis as snakes and cockroaches before the Rwandan genocide become all too real. Of course within a day or so, the news cycle took over and we all moved on. Well some of us, anyway.

“Language rooted in prejudice results in a more violent society.”

Besides recognizing the unspeakable harm that has now become part of the norm in a place I call home, what I also can’t seem to shake is this: how is that animals, and certain types of animals, are always the shorthand for something beneath humanity? Some sort of inanimate entity to be disregarded? I wonder, does anyone else see how this type of reference not only perpetuates racism, but also speciesism? That a shared language rooted in prejudice and stereotype results in a more violent society for humans and non-humans and society at large?

I’ve started to look into how we humans have defined animals and what that means for a vegan world view.

Animals defined by Human Characteristics

Interestingly, many animals are not defined by who they are or by the unique traits of their species. Rather, they are defined as representing an undesirable characteristic of a human. The formal definition of a pig is ‘an ugly and fat woman or man’ or ‘a dirty or slovenly person’. Idioms with pig go even further, such as like a pig to the slaughter: ‘quietly or obediently, without concern or knowledge of danger that one is facing’. Really?! Those of us who have stepped inside or have seen footage of a slaughterhouse know all too well that animals fight for their lives, the fear in their eyes visible, their screams unquiet.

The chicken has been dealt a similar fate: ‘afraid, cowardly’ or ‘underaged boy or girl regarded as a potential target for sexual abuse’. And, like a headless chicken, ‘disorganized or uncontrolled’.

If this idiom originates from the 14th century when chickens were killed by chopping off their heads, I don’t dare to know what happened to chickens to somehow come to represent child abuse.

How about a cow? ‘A fat or ugly woman’. Oh, so if you’re a cow, you only have to be fat or ugly, you’re not automatically characterized as both. How nice for a plus-sized woman being the target of someone’s ire.

Or what about the beloved dog? It fares slightly better than its farm animal comrades, being that it can signify luck (‘lucky dog’), but it quickly goes downhill from there: ‘unattractive or uninteresting’, ‘inferior or low quality’. Soon it’s at the same level of the donkey (‘a stupid or foolish person’) or of course, the rat: ‘a wretched-acting person’.

Naturally, as you step higher up the proverbial food chain of the animal kingdom, the more exotic or less familiar animals are defined solely as their scientific species. Take for instance, the ‘large, tawny-colored cat that lives in prides’ or the ‘very large marine mammal with a streamlined, hairless body’.

But yet, the ape has been defined as ‘an unintelligent or clumsy person’. Is this because apes have been hunted, imprisoned, and abused by the hands of humans? Is it because we’ve chosen to take how this animal was described at one point in time and instead ignore their incredible intelligence in ways we will never fully understand?

Out of Sight and rendered out of Place

But what makes these definitions stick in the English lexicon and human-normative language for centuries?

Whether animals are simply out of sight and therefore rendered out of place in a curious, intelligent human mind, or that the use and killing of animals is so pervasive in our society, it’s difficult for people to see animals as individuals.

What’s more, culture has maintained an awe-inspired feeling toward enormous creatures roaming the great plains or swimming the vast oceans. Where it remains difficult, and far too inconvenient for most people, is when it pertains to the much smaller, more common domesticated animals — those on our plates and in the products we consume. An animal, however it is formally defined, has assumed its position as having a lower stature in society simply because enough humans opted to dominate them and enough others are willing to accept it as status quo for millenia. It gives people an excuse to harm animals just as much as it gives them a shorthand to denigrate other humans they’ve deemed lower class or inferior to them.

“Language as an excuse to harm animals and denigrate other humans we deem inferior.”

The (damning) 2020 UN report on global biodiversity, written by 400 scientists, has warned that one million species are headed for extinction. 500,000 land species no longer have enough habitat to survive long term. 40% of amphibian species will be lost. One third of marine mammals and 10% of insects, gone.

These are the kind of words that can stop you in your tracks. And the hope is this time, maybe it will stay in the news and the public conscience a little longer. We’ve left species other than our own unconsidered, or worse disregarded altogether. We stand to lose everything we know, and everything we never dared to fully appreciate.

I’m not sure I see much changing anytime soon. Try telling someone you know that rats are known to laugh when they play; that pigs are incredibly clean animals, descendants of wild boar who benefit plant life from their rooting behavior. They might look at you as if you have two heads while they try to muster enough interest in a species other than their own.

But hey, every vegan you know is used to it just for eating tofu and speaking up for animals and the planet whenever they can. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still try.

Dominion redefined

Dominion needs to be redefined: from one of dominating animals to a notion of being responsible stewards to them — to protect, honor, and respect those animals with whom we are lucky enough to share this planet — gives us all a cause worth fighting for no matter how big an impact any one of us might have. Of course a peaceful coexistence and the right to life for all living beings should be self-evident, but the persistence of an idea that some lives matter more than others is the all that’s wrong with this world.

“The idea that some lives matter more than others is all that’s wrong with this world.”

Progress and change in the fight against speciesism is possible, but it starts with considering how language has been used to malign and insult both humans and non-humans. Words – if chosen more carefully – matter for the good of society and the planet we all share.

That is, if we still have a planet to share.
It’s worth giving pause to our words.

The aforementioned animals deserve consideration of their most interesting qualities that we humans have taken for granted. Each one stands in stark contrast to the phraseology embedded in our lexicon.

Rat
– Rattus norvegicus
Rats talk to each other in high frequencies, above the human range of hearing. They have their own acoustics, even laughter.

Pig
– Sus
Pigs are unable to sweat. To cool down, they wallow in the mud. They are otherwise quite clean, ever careful not to soil areas where they eat and sleep.

Chicken
– Gallus gallus
Chickens have a profound memory and recognize each other as individuals after they have been separated. In their natural surroundings, they form complex social hierarchies.

Cow
– Bos taurus
Cows are gentle animals with excellent memory. They form close bonds with each other and grieve deeply over the loss or separation from those they love.

Ape
– Hominoidea
Humans are members of the broader
Ape superfamily. Great apes recognize
themselves in mirrors, reason abstractly, and are highly social beings.

Donkey
– Equus asinus
Donkeys have a keen sense of selfpreservation, great strength, and intelligence, more so than their horse relatives. They also have an incredible memory.

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