I came across an article on the Internet recently discussing whether or not calling the family cat or dog a “pet” should be considered politically incorrect. The article, “Journal of Animal Ethics: Banning Common Words That Describe Pets and Other Animals” is actually a few years old; it was published in Psychology Today in 2011. However, since I'm an animal lover, the topic piqued my interest and seems as timely today as it did four years ago.
The gist of the article is that the good people at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, which publishes the Journal of Animal Ethics, find the word "pet" derogatory. They advocate the terms “animal companion” or “companion animal” instead. In lieu of “owners” or “masters,” people should be known as “human carers” or “guardians.” Even the word “wildlife” should be replaced with the term “free living animal.”
The experts at Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics aren’t alone in their findings either. The University of Illinois, Penn State University and animal rights activists around the globe support avoiding language that negatively affects the way animals are viewed and/or treated. I’m not sure I agree with everything they say – the words “pet” and “wildlife” have very positive connotations in my mind – but it did get me to thinking about all the different ways in which we use animal references in everyday figures of speech that place animals in an unflattering light.
– Someone cunning is “sly like a fox”
– Someone devious is “Sneaky as a weasel”
– Someone scared is “chicken”
– Someone overweight is a “fat cow”
– Someone messy is “filthy as a pig”
– Someone choosy is “finicky as a cat”
– Someone angry is “mad as a wet hen”
– Someone unintelligent is “dumb as an ox”
– Someone frivolous is “silly as a goose”
– Someone with bad eyesight is “blind as a bat”
– Someone who dawdles is “slow as a turtle”
– Someone arrogant is “proud as a peacock” or “puffed up like a peacock”
– Someone slimy is “slippery as an eel”
– Someone cruel is “mean as a snake”
– Someone obstinate is “stubborn as a goat”
– Someone inebriated is “drunk as a skunk”
– Someone with low character is a “low-down dirty dog” or a “rat”
– Someone clumsy is compared to a “bull in a china shop”
– A philanderer is referred to as a “wolf”
– Feuding girls get in “cat fights”
– Getting caught unaware compares to “deer in the headlights”
– People without minds of their own “follow like sheep”
The list goes on, but you get the point. It’s time to stop the name-calling and stereotyping! Skunks are notorious teetotalers, it’s not finicky to know what you want, brawn doesn’t necessarily exclude brains, and as for being fat…enough with the body shaming already; beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.
In this day and age, when we’re encouraged to respect diversity in people, maybe it is time we learned to apply that same philosophy to our four-legged, scaled and feathered friends as well. Humor aside, there is power in words. Words affect the way we view animals the same way they influence the way we view humans, which means our word choices have the power to affect the way we treat and interact with animals.
Just think of the difference in the images conjured up by the examples listed previously versus the following: wise as an owl; graceful as a swan; brave as a lion. Negative connotations reflect negative attitudes; positive connotations reflect positive attitudes. It’s just human nature.