quizzical dogLately I've read a number of sarcastic comebacks to a proposal made by the editors of the Journal of Animal Ethics pleading for greater mindfulness in language about animals. The journal argues for dropping out of our vocabulary words and phrases such as "vermin," "beasts," or "eat like a pig." The editors suggest that even words like "pet," "wildlife" or "animal" carry negative associations—perhaps, they hint, we could instead refer to them respectively (and respectfully) as "companion animals," "free-living animals" or "differentiated entities."

Many of the commentaries I've read poke fun at the notion that poor Fido will feel miffed if we refer to him by the derogatory word "pet." Erin Skarda, writing for Time, snickers "We're pretty sure that your dog doesn't mind being called a ‘pet' just as long as you keep up with the tasty food, belly scratches and long walks around the neighborhood."

Amusing copy, but hardly the point.

What the editors of JAE are after, obviously, is the attitudes of the human variety of animals. The hope is that avoiding language with negative baggage will help nudge our culture away from views of animals as mere property, resources or threats. Snarky editorials aside: would this strategy of language reform work?

The idea that people's attitudes or behavior can be tweaked by language is certainly not a crazy one. Before politicians propose a new policy, they'll often spend good money taking words out for a test drive with the voting public. Want to propose oil drilling or do you want to call it energy exploration? Turns out it matters. Want to know how the public feels about gays in the military? Depends on the question. A CBS poll conducted in 2010 showed that 51% of respondents "strongly favored" allowing "gay men and lesbians" to serve in the military, while only 34% felt the same way about "homosexuals."

In December 2010, Media Matters reported a leaked memo by Fox News editor Bill Sammon to journalists instructing them to use the phrase "government run option" instead of "public option" when referring to the Democratic health care reform. Why? Apparently, Republican pollster Frank Luntz had pointed out that "if you call it a 'public option,' the American people are split," but that "if you call it the 'government option,' the public is overwhelmingly against it."

And if language didn't matter, why are liberals so eager to re-brand themselves as "progressives"? The use of a word fires up not only its meaning, but also memories of the contexts in which that word has been used, and the derogatory "feel" of words like "liberal" and "homosexual" comes not from their meanings, but from the fact that they've been wielded as terms of loathing. Incidentally, as linguist Geoff Nunberg points out in his book Talking Right, there was a time in history when it was the word "conservative" that was tainted, as revealed by the following quote from a 1949 editorial:

"If a man is described as a ‘conservative' in politics... he is likely to be suspected of wanting to cheat widows and orphans and generally to be a bad fellow who associates with other bad fellows. Consequently, very few people will admit they are conservatives and if they are accused they will go to great lengths to prove otherwise."

Times change.

But language can only work as a lever for attitude change if it's expertly applied. And it's in the execution, not the intentions, that the editors of JAE fail.

For one thing, they argue that "pet" is pejorative because it activates the mental construct that animals are owned and regarded as nothing but property. But I doubt that this is the dominant association with the word. Before ditching it, one would actually want to check. With empirical evidence, Frank Luntz-style. The fact that the word is used as a term of endearment and gets co-opted in expressions like "pet project," or "teacher's pet" suggests to me that it mostly activates mental constructs of affection and favoritism.

And I have my reservations about the term "free-living" instead of "wildlife." The editors claim that " ‘wildness' is synonymous with uncivilized, unrestrained, barbarous existence." But to me at least, "wildlife," like "wilderness," is something to be cherished rather than eliminated, and "free-living" mostly activates thoughts of hippie communes—an association that I suspect would alarm the staff at Banff National Park, who have the utmost respect for grizzly bears, but do their best to dissuade the local tourist population from treating them as photo props.

But terms like "animal companion" or "differentiated entity" are especially clumsy. Word choice matters not just because of its associations, but also because it can say something about the speaker's motives for using the language he did. Hearers automatically (and subconsciously) ask themselves: Why is he saying this? And why is he saying it in these words?"

For example: it turns out that anti-drug programs that go to great lengths to train teenagers to assertively "just say no" to drugs by running them through various role-playing scenarios can actually increase the likelihood of drug use. Why? Because the kids wonder "Why are they spending so much time teaching me this?" and wind up concluding that it's because everyone is doing drugs, and dealers lurk around every corner. The training inadvertently folds in an implicit form of peer pressure. Good intentions, road to hell.

A convoluted phrase like "differentiated entity" used instead of "animal" doesn't exactly slip under the radar. A normal person will wonder: Why all this linguistic beating around the bush? Two conclusions are likely. One, that the speaker is using the phrase to try to mold attitudes. (And since no one likes to be instructed how to think, this predictably leads to all the ridicule about "politically correct" language.) And second, that there's something unseemly about animals, so much so that they can't be referred to directly in polite company—a bit like saying you're going to powder your nose when you really mean you need to urinate. Not using the obvious word can signal that there's something taboo about the whole concept.

The JAE editors have the best of intentions, and there's nothing wrong with their starting assumptions. But they could have used the expertise and linguistic finesse of someone like Frank Luntz in crafting their guidelines.

Copyright © 2011 Julie Sedivy, All Rights Reserved

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