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Is your vocabulary vegan?

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There are lots of words that make their way into your vocabulary when you become vegan. From nutritional yeast to tempeh, once foreign words become frequently used (once their pronunciation is figured out). However, have you noticed how common phrases and terminology that include derogatory animal connotations never leave? Whether we are describing a celebrity beef on Twitter or titling a vegan recipe as “vegan pork,” it seems some habits are harder to break than others. In some ways, our language is reflective of the way Society perceives animals, and acts as a reinforcement for some of our misguided global beliefs. In other ways, it helps demonstrate a bridge that exists between the experience of human and non-human animals. I’m not suggesting that vegans cease all animal lingo in lieu of saying “tofu” as a substitute, but rather recognize the role of this languaging in making people feel inseparable from and supported to continue participating in animal exploitation. If non-violence is what we’re after, we should consider the weight of our words.

“Like a lamb to slaughter”

There are a countless number of phrases, expressions, and euphemisms that include the hypothetical use of animals. We say “like a lamb to slaughter,” or “like a chicken with it’s head cut off” in situations that seldom entail similarly brutal consequences. More than being just a hollow comparison, we have already related one bad scenario to another. We “let the cat out of the bag” when we have a secret, as if to say keeping a cat in a bag is hard to do without guilt. Whether people realize it or not, comparisons like these clearly relate the slaughter and misuse of animals to being awful, uncomfortable, or unpleasant situations like the ones we experience ourselves when these phrases are used. It’s easy to see how being “in the doghouse” might be just as bad as actually being left outside in the cold, in a literal doghouse. But whether or not these prose came from realistic scenarios doesn’t matter. I simply find it interesting how unconsciously, we agree with some of the hardships that non-human animals are made to face when we put ourselves in their shoes in this way.

“You’re such a pig”

When it comes to insulting others, there are much stronger words than “swine.” In some of these popular sayings, we are projecting human characteristics on to animals, or finding humour in seeing animal characteristics displayed by humans. Someone who is “acting like a pig” or “being an ass” is seen negatively, as being ignorant, selfish, lazy, etc. You might “egg” someone on to not be so “chicken,” without realizing that you’ve similarly assigned negative characteristics to chickens. When we relate our fear to chickens, we singularize their range of emotions, forgetting that they can also be boisterous, pushy, loving, etc. Although seldom done intentionally, relating our least popular qualities to animals sends the message that they themselves are less deserving. In an effort to celebrate animals, these idioms can put them down.

“Bring home the bacon”

The “bacon” in the above sentence might reference money, but it links the value of monetary wealth to the value of having an abundance of pork products. Sayings like these have a way of making animal exploitation sound positive, normal, or expected of us. Similarly, we might say we have “bigger fish to fry” without recognizing that drive or desire is linked to greed. Saying we can or should “milk something” is to take advantage of it, not unlike what it means to really milk an animal. Again, animal exploitation is given a sort of power in language underneath the intended message.

“Vegan Double Bacon Cheeseburger”

I often use words like “chicken” in my vegan recipes, to the dismay of some. Not unlike the expressions above, I can see how relying on “faux,” “mock,” or “non” can sometimes not be enough to distinguish the necessity of veganism from the desire to eat familiar things. I often use it as a bridge-point, so people know what to expect from the food before trying it. Still, I see the value in challenging ourselves to not need comforting terminology of the past anymore than we need the other traditions that enlist animal agriculture of any sort. Just as the word “beef” forgets that a cow is involved, “vegan beef” can give the message that we still enjoy what beef represents in some way. Although “vital wheat gluten” might not always sound appetizing, we should seek out ways to communicate about our imitation foods without needing to replicate their namesakes.


Going vegan means constantly looking at the ways we effectively and ineffectively spread the education of our message. While throwing out some of these phrases doesn’t make you any less vegan, and maybe just a bit more human, I think it’s valuable to consider how we can move away from using hurtful language.

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  • Herwin Walravens

    i agree, we should move away from using hurtful language, how about to stop denigratingly calling fellow vegans, who by their very lifestyle show that they are against using any animals in any way, but, who slightly differ in their aperach to promote a more animal friendly society in a way that you you so happily disagree, maybe they are positive about Meatfree Monday, or do single issue protests, how about….NOT calling them welfarist? How about…accepting fellow vegans who have a diferent aproach, and NOT namecalling.

    • Elizabeth Collins

      Why is ‘welfarist’ “namecalling”? If you are so so convinced that promoting welfare and single issue protests and all that stuff that *is* welfarist advocacy is a good thing, then you ought to wear that with pride. If Gary Francione, who coined the term ‘new welfarist/welfarist’ over a decade ago, had instead said ‘regulationist’ or some other applicable term and that was what was being used, you all would be complaining about that word instead. I am a proud abolitionist vegan. I wear that with pride. Even though others use it as an insult now and in a derogatory way, I don’t care, to me it is not, because it stands for what i promote and believe in. If you truly believe welfare is a good thing, and you stand by it, then what’s the problem? if you have a problem with that term then maybe examine your own support and participation in the actual thing, i.e welfarist advocacy and ask yourself why you find it so ‘offensive’. We are not obligated to ‘accept’ speciesism in animal advocacy any more than we are obligated to ‘accept’ it in general, on the contrary, we are obligated to speak out against it in all its forms and locations, since it is actually *the* root of the problem.

      • Elizabeth Collins

        For example, to me the term ‘reducetarian’ is an extremely negative term. When I use it I am not, i assure you, using it in a positive way—I am not saying it to be pejorative or derogatory for the sake of it but to me, the actual thing it actually represents is negative (because it’s speciesist and I am an animal rights advocate). But those who believe in it proudly call themselves that although admittedly they coined it for themselves. The term welfarist (which is generally used as an abbreviation of new welfarist) was coined by someone else, but again, even if they had coined their own phrase it would still be being used to differentiate the position, but they never did coin anything and Gary Francione beat them to it. They preferred ‘animal rights activists’ but that is inaccurate. It perverts the concept of animal rights for welfarists to call themselves animal rights. It’s not personal, it’s about defending an idea. You have to understand that for animal *rights* (i.e not animal welfare) advocates who have an obligation to object to speciesism in all its forms, and that includes the terrible speciesism in animal advocacy that is welfarism and single issue, we deliberately need and desire to differentiate ourselves from welfarists, because we need to make it very clear to the general public and other vegans that we object to welfarism, and why. It’s actually a necessary obligation and part of educational efforts. I want nothing to do with that kind of speciesism that you describe, and I do sincerely object to it, therefore it’s not derogatory it describes a real action which I really object to for real reasons, and since they are mostly vegans doing it in the welfarist movement, i need to make it clear that I am not one of them, that there are [new] welfarist vegans and abolitionist vegans.

        If you want to call yourself a ‘single issueist’ or ‘regulationist’ or whatever you feel accurately describes your position—be accurate though, and truthful—then by all means, but trust me if I were to use that term it would still be not positive for the above reasons, and people might still say it is ‘name calling’ instead to avoid dealing with the substance, but it’s just a differentiation, a necessary one. It’s like radical feminism and post-modern feminism. Post modern feminists don’t consider it ‘name calling’ to be called Post Modern, because they agree with what it stands for. When I use it I am not using it in a complimentary or admiring way because I disagree with it, on principle, but there are *reasons*. It’s not ‘name-calling’.

  • Skittle

    Don’t be such a chicken.

  • Dane

    Ok now you’re just milking it. I mean there are bigger fish to fry in this world, it’s no use crying over spilled milk. I mean you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs man, and when you count your chickens before they hatch, you can consider yourself dead meat. Best thing to do would just be to quit this veganism cold turkey instead of running around like a headless chicken. Now I’m going to take a picture of you to show my kids what unhealthy looks like, so if you will, please say CHEESE! 😀

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