Like many other people, I read The Phantom Tollbooth when my age was a single digit (in base 9+1). For most people who have read this book, it is the first thing we read that encourages us to think carefully about our word choices and make sure that we say what we intend to say, or at least be aware of when we avoid doing so.
Nonetheless, most people, after reaching a certain age and fluency of language, do not think too carefully about the exact words they speak; rather, they focus on the content of the phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, but not on the precise words spoken. As far as I know, I was more or less one of these people until relatively recently. Okay, a few times in my life I was told to avoid using certain clumps of words or nonwords on the grounds that they were ungrammatical, most notably by my middle school English teacher. But it was not until my last year of college that I actively started trying to control my speech and avoid using words incorrectly.
In the summer 2006, I thought about many things, but two things are of particular relevance right now: I thought about where I might want to go to graduate school and how I might go about getting accepted to a good program, and I thought about a paper I was co-authoring and finalizing for submission to a journal. So, I wanted to get better at getting accepted to graduate schools, and I wanted to get better at mathematical writing. I discovered that Steven Krantz had written several books on these topics, and so I read a few of them. I wish to quote two paragraphs from A Primer of Mathematical Writing that have had a profound impact on my speech patterns.
“With due homage to Edwin R. Newman, I note that it is incorrect to use ‘hopefully’ (at the beginning of a sentence) when you mean to say ‘It is hoped that’ or (more sloppily) ‘I hope.’ The word ‘hopefully’ is an adverb. It is intended to modify a verb. For example, ‘She wanted so badly to marry him, and she looked at him hopefully while she waited for a proposal.’ Note that the word ‘hopefully’ modifies ‘looked.’ It is incorrect to say ‘Hopefully the weather will be better today.’ when what you mean to say is ‘I hope that the weather is better today.’ By the same token, do not say ‘This situation looks hopeful.’ People can be hopeful, objects or things never.
“Monty Python tells us that ‘Mitzi was out in the garden, hopefully kissing frogs.’ If you are comfortable with the common misuse of ‘hopefully’ then you will probably misunderstand this sentence.” (pages 49–50)
Like so many other people, I had been misusing the word “hopefully” for my entire life. Would I manage to correct myself in the future? I tried; it was very tough at first. I kept saying “hopefully” incorrectly, but I would notice and scold myself. Eventually, though, I was able to eliminate the word’s misuse from my lexicon, and in doing so, I had demonstrated to myself that I was able to control my speech, albeit with great effort.
Fast forward two years or so. By this time, I had been vegan for some time, and, while it was very easy to avoid animal products, it wasn’t so easy to make veganism seem totally normal to me. I discovered, somehow, that if I were to speak in a manner consistent with the way I wished to see the world, that would positively influence my views on normalcy. I was reminded of by far the most interesting idea from Nineteen Eighty-Four: it is very difficult for one to think something if one cannot say it. So, I redefined my language to mean what I wanted it to mean: most notably, the word “food” would henceforth mean “vegan food”; animal products are not food, after all. It sometimes confuses or amuses my fellow math graduate students when I enter the tea room and say something like “There are only grapes for tea,” ignoring various animal products. But it makes me happy to say such things, and other people might be encouraged to think about what food is just a little bit, which is good. Occasionally, my choice of language causes amusing problems. For example, at the vegetarian meeting last week, I wanted to say that Rainbow Grocery has only vegetarian food, but I was unable to do so since that is tautological. Coming up with a workaround in such situations is a challenge I should think about at some point.
So, that was the beginning. But, not long after that, I discovered Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s fantastic podcast Vegetarian Food for Thought. One of the episodes is Compassionate Clichés. I realized before listening to the episode that she was claiming that our choice of language was partially responsible for our societal respect or lack thereof of animals. I was highly skeptical before listening to the episode, but I decided to try it out anyway. After all, I had been under the impression that being vegan was supposed to be a very difficult and self-sacrificing thing to do, and I didn’t feel that it was hard at all, so I wanted to make it a little bit more difficult for myself. Okay, a lot more difficult; it’s way, way harder to control my speech than my food (and clothing, etc.).
I started to notice the violence inherent in our language. It says a lot about us as a society if we can say things like “Kill two birds with one stone” and not even notice. Is killing birds such a meaningless and thoughtless thing to do that it should just be tossed off as part of our everyday language? Even if I don’t know anyone personally throwing stones at birds, I still find it troubling that our society accepts the idea so casually. And there are hundreds of other similarly violent or pro-exploitation expressions built into the English language. If I wish to lead a nonviolent life (and I do), I should not participate in violence in my speech any more than I should with my actions.
When I heard about Joan Dunayer’s book Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, I was immediately fascinated. A book combining my interests in precision of speech and animal rights could not possibly fail to be interesting. I was expecting to find more information along the same lines as that presented in Colleen’s podcast episode. This turned out not really to be the case. Instead, the book is primarily about euphemisms promoted by industries in order to cause normal people not to think too carefully.
One of Dunayer’s first complaints is that we sometimes use different words to describe the same behaviors in humans and nonhuman animals. For example, we tend to distinguish between “animal instinct” and “human intelligence.” When a human solves a problem, we call that intelligence; when a nonhuman animal solves a problem, we call that instinct. But there isn’t any meaningful difference between the two processes; therefore, we ought to use the same word to describe both phenomena. Similarly, a human mother caring for her child is said to possess “motherly love,” whereas a nonhuman doing the same thing is said to possess “maternal instinct.” Dunayer cites several other examples of our linguistic dichotomy. The impact of this dichotomy is that it encourages us to consider nonhuman animals less respectfully than we do humans: even our language is dripping with condescension.
Dunayer then has several chapters devoted to specific industries, such as hunting, fishing, zoos, vivisection, and “animal agriculture” (a term she rallies against). She demonstrates that specific words are carefully chosen to make it seem that nonhuman animals are not being harmed or exploited. For instance, hunters generally avoid the word “kill” when referring to what they do; they prefer to say that they are “culling” the population, or something of a similar ilk. In fact, they are so successful at playing the euphemism game that a listener would think that the hunters are actually doing the nonhuman animal population a favor. How absurd!
We tend to avoid the use of emotionally charged words when talking about what we do to nonhuman animals. As I mentioned before, we don’t “kill” animals when we hunt; rather, we “cull” populations. We don’t “capture” animals for zoos; rather, we “collect” them. Vivisection doesn’t cause “pain” but only “minor discomfort.” And when we’re done with them, we don’t kill them; instead, they are “sacrificed.” Sometimes, very conveniently, they even “sacrifice” themselves. The language we use is very carefully calculated to make it appear to be, if not in the animals’ best interest, at least fairly pleasant for them, although this is far from the truth.
I suppose I ought to be hopeful to see this: if animal abusers are so unpopular when they are honest and straightforward about their actions that they need to be deliberately misleading in their word choices, then it might not be too hard for those of us who wish to see an end to animal exploitation to effect positive changes by speaking in a more honest manner. It’s easy enough for me to do now that I’ve built up a bit of muscle for monitoring my word choices.
Of course, the “food” aspect is most relevant to normal people like me, since that’s something all of us need to think about several times a day, and we make personal decisions that affect the lives of others. Here, it’s quite clear what people say in order to forget what they eat. They don’t eat “cows” but “beef” or “steak,” They don’t eat “pigs” but “pork,” “ham,” or “bacon.” Dunayer tells that the goat meat industry suffered from its failure to popularize the euphemistic name of “chevon” for its product. Most people seem to be somewhat queasy about the idea of killing animals for food and wish to be reminded of their food’s origin as little as possible. Naturally, that makes my job clear: remind them as frequently as possible.
Word order also plays a key role in exploiters’ rhetoric. When possible (and sometimes even when grammatically unacceptable), they like to rearrange sentences so as not to make the victims be the subject of the sentence. Sometimes, they manage to twist the sentences up so much that the victims are not even mentioned. For example, “Convulsions generally occurred within 90 seconds of injection.” Some rather important information, such as the type of animal used in this experiment, is conspicuously absent in the sentence, and intentionally so.
Another way we use language to marginalize nonhuman animals is by confusion in number. An animal isn’t a species, but a member of one. So, it is not sensible to say something like “This polar bear is an endangered animal.” While polar bears are endangered as a species, an individual polar bear might or might not be endangered. Any animal is endangered when a gun is pointed at em, for example, regardless of species. But when we confuse an animal (a particular one) with its species, we run the risk of mistaking the needs of the individual for those of the species. An individual animal’s needs include a natural habitat (not being captured, for instance), safety (not being shot, for instance), a food source, and a community of other members of eir species, to name a few obvious ones. When a species is in good shape and not under threat of extinction, the well-being of a single member of the species is unlikely to be of paramount importance. But it is to that animal, and that should still be relevant to us.
Animal experimenters like to use this confusion of number when writing reports. They might say, for example, that a certain type of behavior occurs in cat. Not in cats, but just in cat. The effect of this language is to encourage the reader to think of all cats as being essentially the same, so that the well-being of one is irrelevant.
There are many more instances of inaccurate use of language to disguise cruelty mentioned in this book, but for the sake of keeping this essay shorter than the actual book, I will only mention one more, relatively minor, one. Dunayer discusses the language of possession, claiming that we should not talk about “our” cats as though we own them. Rather, we should talk about feline companions, or something similar in order to express something closer to a parity in the relationship. However, after reading the short blurb about the author on the dust jacket, I wonder to what extent she really agrees with this claim. She writes “She lives […] with her spouse, Eric, who is a veterinarian; four cat companions; and nineteen rat friends.” To me, the syntax suggests that she owns Eric but not the cats and rats. While I understand that the situations are not completely parallel (presumably Eric is verbally consensual about the ownership, whereas the cats and rats have not said clearly whether they are or not), I am unsatisfied with the idea that one can claim ownership of another person in this way.
If you are interested in the relationship between language and exploitation, I recommend this book to you strongly. It is always interesting, and, with its staggering 702 footnotes, impeccably research, with references to many scientific papers, journal articles, newspaper articles, interviews, and books in order to get a good sampling of our use of language. Unfortunately, I suspect that most people will find the topic to be too esoteric to pique their interests. If you are among those, you will probably find the book too weird to enjoy properly. That’s okay; you don’t need to read all the same books that I do.