“To-foo are you calling inanimate?” 

Veganuary, linguistics, and the words we use when discussing animals. 

By Taryn McDonnell 

UWE English Language and Linguistics (2018-2021)

After a month of Christmas inspired decadence, many of us will be turning our palates – and our wallets – towards the ever-growing variety of plant-based alternatives within our supermarkets, all in the name of the 30-day annual change, ‘Veganuary’. As such, it seems like a fitting time to discuss the perhaps inconspicuous links between linguistics and veganism, and to explore how even seemingly small things, such as the language that we use when discussing animals, may in fact influence how they are treated by human society (Stibbe, 2001). 

To begin to understand these links, we must venture back to 1975, the year in which Peter Singer released his bestseller and definitive classic of the animal rights movement, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. Viewed as a radical departure from the anthropocentric philosophies that had dominated human thinking for millennia, Singer critically analysed modern farming practices, the media, and our role as humans in perpetuating unnecessary animal suffering. Singer centred his thinking around a core principle that it is unjust to cause suffering to any being which has an interest in – at the bare minimum – not suffering. Singer’s book sparked an animal liberation movement and created a compelling argument which has stood the test of time against numerous moral philosophers wishing to challenge it (Villanueva, 2017). 

This is all very interesting, I hear you say, but what does any of this have to do with language and linguistics?  

Singer was in fact, one of the first philosophers to explicitly note how our vocabulary serves to conceal our food’s origins. He explained how we eat pork not pig, beef not cow, and how even the noun ‘meat’, which once meant any solid food, is now used to disguise the fact that we are eating the flesh of an animal. Subsequent research within the fields of journalism studies, eco-linguistics (see Stibbe, 2001), and critical animal studies have further explored how language can be used by institutions such as the government, the animal industries, and the media, to sustain and perpetuate animal suffering. 

As a life-long animal advocate and final-year linguistics student desperately searching for a dissertation topic which would not drive me to despair, I chose to critically analyse all farmed animal articles appearing in UK National Newspapers for the year 2020, with an aim of discovering how and to what extent they reinforced speciesism. 

“Speciesism – a prejudice characterized by morally favouring one species – usually homo sapiens – over others.” 

Inspired by the following quote from Jepson – ‘the killing of animals is the most extreme and significant expression of human power over them’ (2008, p.127) – I chose to critically analyse the verbs that we as humans use to denote the act of killing an animal. In doing so, I made some striking discoveries. A small excerpt regarding the killing verb ‘destroy’ and how it’s use reflects a speciesist ideology is given below… 

“The killing verb ‘destroy’ appears in 3 articles, all of which also feature the verb ‘culling’. Destroy, as noted by Jepson (2008, p.141) is derived from ‘a basic meaning that refers not to human beings but to inanimate objects’. It is symbolic, therefore, of the ways in which we classify varying levels of animacy. We can destroy sandcastles, but we cannot kill them, and as humans we can be emotionally or even physiologically destroyed, but we cannot be destroyed in the literal sense of killed. The use of destroy as a killing verb therefore not only refers to the murder of animals, but simultaneously conspires to relegate their classification from living, sentient beings, to that of emotionless, inanimate objects.” (McDonnell, 2021). 

I also found similar instances for other killing verbs such as, ‘cull’, ‘harvest’ and ‘depopulate’. Even the word ‘slaughter’ (frequently used to describe the killing of animals) can be viewed as evidence of a speciesist ideology when we realise that ‘animals are slaughtered, humans are murdered’ (Stibbe, 2001, p.07). 

I am afraid that this blog post has taken somewhat of a dark turn, but I truly believe that it is important for us to question why we use the words that we do to discuss animals. Who serves to benefit from concealing our foods origins from us? Why would institutions use words that reduce an animal’s sentience to that of an inanimate object?  

Perhaps now, whilst our fridges our full of tofu and our bellies with broccoli, we may take some time to question how justified our dominion over animals really is, and how even our everyday vocabulary may be concealing something more sinister. 

One comment

  1. Just a thought on this interesting post; it’s true that MEAT once meant any sort of solid food, and may once have “disguised” flesh, but for me – and most English speakers? – it now explicitly means ‘flesh of an animal’, except in MINCEMEAT as opposed to MINCED MEAT!

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