Is your vocabulary vegan?
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.