I’ve been meaning to write a post about language. It is something I have been giving quite a bit of thought to recently. If we are sincere about staving towards an equitable and magnanimous society. One which is peaceful and non violent, then we really need to include in that circle of compassion the larger living world and especially our animal brothers and sisters.
But first let’s get on the same page. Some folks might not understand what an idiom is. An idiom is a phrase or sentence made up of several words which when combined offer a definition that is different from the literal definition of those individual words. As an aside, idioms for this reason can often be difficult for ESL learners to understand.
You can think of an idiom as a written or verbal painting that is somewhat abstract in nature. It paints a meaning different than the individual parts. There are also animal similes too. A simile like an idiom is a figure of speech (a phrase if you will) that compares one thing with a different kind of thing.
I take issue with both animal idioms and animal similes and there are probably others including animal metaphors but doing a bit of research I can’t come up with many. So for the sake of this post we’ll stick to similes and idioms.
Those who doubt the seriousness of my contention that language can be used as a weapon of violence should just think recently of George W. Bush and his use of language to send Americans into a pointless war over “weapons of mass destruction”.
But language is more than just a call to violence… and peace, but we’re focusing on violence today.
Language starts as a seed, a kernel of thought. It is that voice that you first hear in your head, and this is where the rot starts and spreads.
Not all similes are detrimental or mean spirited towards animals just as not all idioms are mean spirited either. But I think taking a moment to breathe new life into a language should be considered as a call to action for vegans and vegetarians who are working towards a more equitable world.
Here are some idioms that aren’t bad.
As the crow flies – Meaning the straightest route possible
Bee’s knees – something that is the best
These are not the problem, but there are many idioms that are problematic and I feel using them continues to assault the animal world and our relationship with them. It is easy to be dismissive of this, that idioms and similes are “just sayings”. But not only is that dangerous it is wrong too.
“Lebensunwertes Leben” meaning “life unworthy of life” was a German figure of speech to support their murder of millions of Jews and other members of society not worthy of living.
Language is very powerful, and more than that, we often try to dehumanize people by calling them animals. “She’s a cow/bitch”, “I’m gonna stick him like a pig”, “She’s a pig” and on and on.
It is time we changed the mean spirited idioms and similes that we use to refer to animals into positive ones that celebrate their unique skills and talents and abilities.
Beating a dead horse – meaning to try and convince something or someone in a vain attempt. But this is unkind to horses. How about “digging up the earth“? We need to start promoting better idioms and similes as we encounter these unkind ones.
Albatross around your neck – something preventing you from succeeding or accomplishing a task. How about “anchor around your neck“?
Bigger fish to fry – meaning you’re not interested in the current issue because you are focused on what you perceive as bigger problems. How about “bigger stones to upturn“?
Cook someone’s goose – To ruin their plans. How about “eat someone’s dinner“?
Could eat a horse – meaning you’re very hungry. How about “could eat a whole bushel“?
Like lambs to the slaughter – meaning to do something unpleasant without resistance. How about “like poo to the shoe“?
More than one way to skin a cat – meaning more than one way to do something. How about “more than one way to peel an onion“?
Those are just some of the more common idioms out there the are abusive towards our animal friends. They’re easy to change and I hope you’ll start thinking about these things before you say them.
Similes are a little more complicated. These can be harder to change and so I’d suggest just not using them unless you’re able to come up with similes that will work and which are catchy. Here’s a few of the more unking similes about animals to give you an idea.
As lame as a duck. I don’t know how to change this. Comparing lameness to anything is going to be unkind to that item being compared to.
As stubborn as a mule. Same problem. Nobody wants to be compared to stubbornness. Maybe as stubborn as Atlas perhaps?
As drunk as a skunk. Maybe as drunk as a liquor cabinet.
As you can see, they’re harder to change than the idioms. They’re also less prevalent in spoken language so it’s with the idioms that we can get the most bang for our buck.
I hope you’ll consider the thrust of the argument. Our cause for the animals is not being helped by the violent language that we use against them. The pen is mightier than the sword as the saying goes and the voice has means to uplift or bring asunder.
I am often catching myself trying to change the most abusive of these animal idioms and our protest against animal abuse and suffering as caring vegans and vegetarians must also involve our careful use of language. The words we give voice to can help or hinder the cause of the voiceless.
It can happen, we’ve seen it before. Those of you my age or a little older will recall the unkind version of the children’s rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”. Historically it used the abusive and mean spirited word “nigger” in place of the accepted “tigger” or “tiger” now.
It changed because it was important that it changed. It was never acceptable to debase a group of humans based on their race and society came to acknowledge that. Language is powerful. It can elevate the human spirit or demean the human experience. The same is with the animals.
Are we crazy like a fox to believe this? Or perhaps we are smart as a fox to realize the truth of this power we have at hand.
Join in the discussion, leave some of your language hacks as you’ve changed figures of speech to help animals. Let’s build a better lexicon to honour our animal friends.