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Liberate your language

Through slang terms, idioms, insults, and standardized grammatical constructs, language reflects current social inequalities. It is packed with the vestiges of a culture’s history of domination, exploitation, and discrimination. In this way, language not only reflects inequality but also has the potential to oppress. In using problematic language, we reinscribe abuses and inequalities. However, by simply not using such language, we can free our own words of exploitation, forcing others to confront these issues when they hear us speak.  

In this post I will focus on how language oppresses (and how we can liberate that language) as it applies to nonhuman animals and speciesist ideology. Importantly though, as I will describe below, it is impossible to discuss speciesist language without also discussing racist and sexist language, as they are all interlinked by a prevailing structure of inequality that operates within most institutions, belief systems, governments, and cultures globally.

Language oppresses in various ways. In relation to animals, the most notable ways that language reinforces and solidifies inequality is through pronouns, the use of “mass terms,” inaccurate language, derogatory terms/insults, and culturally specific idioms and adages.

pronouns. One of the most obvious ways that the English language oppresses is through the de-sexing and objectification of animals with pronouns. Many of you have seen the wonderful advertisements to promote veganism, which show an image of a “farm animal” with copy that reads: “Someone not something.” This distinction between subject (someone) and object (something) is extremely important for changing the way that people think of nonhuman animals.  It is in the objectification of other animals that we deny them sentience and personhood so that we may use their bodies for sport, transportation, entertainment, clothing, food, work, or whatever else we humans please.

Someone not Something

This transformation of other animals from subject to object, happens quietly through the use of pronouns. Animals are “it,” not “he” or “she;” they are “that” and “which,” not “who” or “whom.” Rendering an animal sexless, classifying him or her as “it that” rather than “s/he who” takes away a crucial aspect of the way in which the English language identifies (human) subjects.

Making the shift to “s/he” rather than “it” is simple but very powerful. If you don’t know someone’s gender, just do what authors do when talking abstractly about humans—switch back and forth between he and she. Never use “that” or “which,” always use “who” or “whom.” This is a very easy thing to do in your speaking and writing and for many animal advocates it will likely feel good and become natural rather quickly. More important than its being easy, it will be noticed. Sentences will just feel “off” to listeners, as this is technically not “correct.” Your spell-check will try to correct you and if you write professionally your editors will, too.  But as you persist in speaking accurately about nonhuman animals, people will notice and be forced to confront the issue in their own thinking.

mass terms. This objectification of other animals via language also occurs through what Carol J. Adams identifies as “false mass terms.” This phrase refers to the lumping together of many individuals into one undifferentiated group (“mass terms”), thereby erasing individuality and establishing an inaccurate (“false”) sense that all in the group are one in the same. One way to think of it is as an extreme stereotype or profiling.

As Adams explains in her article A War on Compassion: “Mass terms refer to things like water or colors; no matter how much of it there is or what type of container it is in, water is still water…Objects referred to by mass terms have no individuality, no uniqueness, no specificity, no particularity.” This is a problem, because, “…humans make someone who is a unique being and therefore not the appropriate referent of a mass term into something that is the appropriate referent of a mass term” (emphasis added).

The way this works in regard to animals is through the identification of classes of animals and species of animals as if it stands in for any individual animal, and such that any individual animal stands in for the whole group. For example, by making someone a “farm animal” we classify her as a type of animal that can be killed for food. Further we often identify animals by species, as if all in that species are the same. This also allows for us to abuse animals en masse for the purposes of food and clothing. It also allows for policies to be set in place that are not in the best interests of some animals. If any cheetah is one in the same as the next cheetah, then trapping and caging some of them for “education” or conservation efforts in zoos becomes acceptable. If each cheetah matters, though, kidnapping any cheetah would be (rightfully) unacceptable.

We use false mass terms when we rely on inaccurate binaries as well. The most prevalent and harmful is human/animal. This is an us/them construct, which establishes a hierarchy that asserts that anyone not like “us” is not as valued. It is nonsensical since humans are also animals, but by establishing all nonhuman animals as “them”, it masks the fact that we are similar to them and they to us; in this way what we do to them can more easily leave our consciousness.

False mass terms are just another way we thing-ify living others, thereby linguistically masking their value as individual living beings. When we use simply “animal” in our language rather than “other animal” or “nonhuman animal” we fall into this trap. By seeking to identify the individual nature of other animals in our language, we better serve our cause.

insults. Derogatory phrases reflect those whom a society devalues (either in the past or present) and highlights racist, classist, abilist and speciesist ideology. Phrases like lame and cunt are insults, as such they devalue those whom they are associated with—people with differently abled bodies and women, respectively.

Animals and animal-related phrases are often used as well to establish the devaluation of others. It is here that we can see how racism, sexism and speciesism are intertwined. Throughout US history, there are two things in common about whichever ethnic minority is being blamed for social problems. First, is that people in this group will be the ones doing the most labor, the hardest labor, and receiving the least pay or legal protection. Currently, these roles in the US are filled by Mexican immigrants (and similar others, i.e. Latinos) as well as by nonhuman animals (who certainly do the most labor and receive nothing in the way of compensation, not even having their lives spared).

19th Century Trading Card

Second, there will be derogatory terms linking individuals in this group to animals. African slaves were kidnapped and brought to the US from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. They worked, were tortured, murdered, and raped—all without pay. They were likened to monkeys in images and language, literally being called “monkey.” In the mid 1800’s Chinese immigrants were recruited in the US to build the Central Pacific Railroad. As they built infrastructure for the development of the Western US and the realization of a “manifest destiny,” they were likened to rats. They were portrayed as rats on trading cards and in advertisements, and they were said to be “like rats”—which stood in for meaning they were dirty, untrustworthy, and unintelligent. Today, Latinos are working in the least desirable jobs and if they are “illegal aliens” they often have no legal protections and are paid inhumane wages. Latina women are said to “breed” like dogs or rabbits, other slang includes “border bunny” (referring to illegal border crossings), pollo (Spanish word for “chicken”, what the border patrol calls Mexicans at the border), and mule (refers to drug mules, insinuating Latinos are drug dealers), to name a few.

Epitaphs to degrade women by likening them to animals also abound: women are sexualized (and objectified) through being likened to nonhuman animals (e.g. chick, fox, vixen). Annoying women are bitches or they “henpeck” their husbands or “brood” over their children. Unattractive women are cows. As Joan Dunayer highlights: “Likening women to nonhuman animals undermines respect for women because nonhuman animals generally receive less respect—far less.” She goes on: “Viewed through speciesism a nonhuman animal acquires a negative image. When metaphor then imposes that image on women they share its negativity.” This use of metaphor that relies on the assumed inferiority of nonhuman others, works to both insult the human target and degrade the moral status of other animals.

When you start paying attention, you may be shocked at just how prevalent “animal” insults are. By refusing to use these terms, and being vocal about why you do it, you not only refuse to propagate these abuses, but you can actually subvert the dominant ideologies that support multiple inequalities.

idioms. Idioms are culturally specific expressions and adages are short memorable phrases. Both are used as shorthand to express a message, a lesson, or a moral. “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” “kill two birds with one stone,” and “don’t’ look a gift horse in the mouth,” are all examples.  These phrases often play on a culture’s understanding of animals as inferior, as property, or as existing to be used or killed by humans.  It can be difficult to stop using them as they slip out easily and have utility as they are typically understood by the majority of a culture. 

Idioms are one of my favorite ways to liberate language because the listener will always take notice and a lot can be expressed through these shifts. For example, “Free two birds with one key” is just as descriptive as “Kill two birds with one stone,” and it totally reorients the expectation of who birds are (individuals to live free vs. objects that are acceptable kill). Because the phrase harkens to the original idiom, the listener will call that old idiom into question as they consider the alternative you have provided.

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has an amazing podcast on this topic, if you want to hear more. At the end of this post is a list of some possible replacements for old idioms and adages from various sources, including many of my friends and the cookbook Vegan Vittles. If you are ever in a pinch, though, you can check out this very clever, "Randomly-Generated Animal Friendly Idiom Editor" by Chris Marcum.

inaccurate language. Inaccurate language is normalized in such a way that it, in turn, serves to normalize the animal abuse itself. Slaughtered individuals are rendered into “food” and described as delicious or expensive or over-cooked or salty instead of as kind or playful or tired or clever. People wear the skins of others and call it “fashion.” People are said to “own” companion animals. We call those who were killed for food “meat.” A hamburger not a cow. When people eat chicken or fish, the language is still inaccurate as these words are being used as a mass term, much like “racing animal” or “circus animal.” We need to stop using inaccurate terms to define the world we are living in. People will tell you that you are alienating yourself if you say things like, “Do you sell any jackets that are not made with cow skin?” But who cares? Animal exploitation and abuse is so normal precisely because it is not questioned.

In talking about disadvantage, sociologist Michael Kimmel tells us that “privilege is invisible.” What he is referencing is the fact that a man is a man is a man, unless he is a poor man, or a black man or a gay man. All “inferior” identities are described. As Melanie Joy points out in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, the same is true for vegetarians. She subverts this by labeling people who eat dead animals “carnists,” I borrow form Steve Best and call them necrovores.

When we label what we are seeing honestly we take the privilege of invisibility away. We re-center our own language to be compassionate, which calls out normalized cruelty to animals. 

a daily practice. Every day language is used that plays off of the normalized nature of violence against animals. It is insidious but typically goes unnoted for the fact that it is so normal. Queering your lexicon means to deviate from what is expected or the normal in terms of the words you use to communicate. It is a beautiful personal act of daily resistance to animal exploitation. Liberating your language of animal abuse adds to the daily practice of veganism to establish a foundation of compassion from which advocacy and activism on behalf of other animals can begin.

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Speciesist Idiom/ Proverb

Cruelty-free replacement

Author

There’s more than one fish in the sea.

There’s more than one leaf on the tree.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Kill two birds with one stone.

Free two birds with one key.

vegina

Slice two carrots with one knife.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Opening a can of worms.

Opening a can of spaghetti.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Land of milk and honey.

Land of sweet abundance.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Running around in circles.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

It’s raining cats and dogs.

It’s raining rice and beans.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

There’s no use crying over spilled milk.

It’s no use weeping over burned toast.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Don’t put the cart before the horse.

Don’t slice the bread before it’s baked.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Don't put all your vegetables in one soup.

Megan Wagner

Never put all your berries in one bowl.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Slippery as an eel.

Slippery as oil.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Packed in like sardines.

Packed in like pickles.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

On a wild goose chase.

Out chasing rainbows.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for life.

Give a man a bean and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to garden and you’ll feed him for life.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

It’s no use beating a dead horse.

It’s no use watering a dead rose.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

He that would fish must not mind getting wet.

He that would garden must not mind getting soiled.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

One man’s treat is another man’s trouble.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Talk turkey.

Speak vegan.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

You can’t make granola out of gravel

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

There’s more than one way to peel a potato.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

There's more than one way to cook/fry a piece of tofu.

Alicia Pell

There's more than one way to catch a crook.

Rose Palmer

There’s more than one way to fool a furrier.

Robyn Hicks

You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

You can’t make wine without crushing grapes.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Never fish in troubled waters.

Never fly a kite in a storm.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

You can sow fertile seeds but  you can’t make them sprout.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Don’t look for bugs in a flower bouquet.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

You can catch more smiles with nice than nasty.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

You can’t get blood from a turnip.

You can’t get water from a stone.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

You can’t sell the cow and have the milk too.

You can’t sell the orchard and keep the apples too.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Ants in your pants.

Pepper in your pants.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Don’t count your bushels before they are reaped.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Don't count your beans before they sprout

Jovian Parry

Walking on eggshells.

Walking on broken glass.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

You are no spring chicken.

You are no spring onion.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Neither fish nor foul.

Neither greens nor grains.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Don’t let the cat out of the bag.

Keep it under your hat.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

He who steals a calf steals a cow.

He who crushes an acorn kills an oak.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

A berry in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Kill not the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Don’t fell the tree that yields the sweetest fruit.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

Sauce for the goose is  sauce for the gander.

Sauce for the peach is sauce for the plum.

Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles

A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Dahmer in a nice suit

?

Bringing home the bacon.

Bringing home the Benjamins

Ryan Bethencourt

Get to the meat of the issue.

Get to the core of the issue.

Rose Palmer

If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas.

If you lie down with bankers, you get up with no heart.

Robyn Hicks

vegina

vegina has been blogging since 2009 about animal liberation, feminism, and the ways in which oppressions intersect.

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