By Joan Dunayer
From "English Today" - Vol. 19, No 1 (2003)
Cambridge University Press
Standard English usage perpetuates speciesism, which is
the failure to accord nonhuman animals equal consideration and respect.
Like racism or sexism, speciesism is a form of prejudice sustained in
part by biased, misleading words. However, whereas racist slurs rightly
elicit censure, people regularly use, and fail to notice, speciesist
language. Unlike sexist language, speciesist language remains socially
acceptable even to people who view themselves as progressive.
Speciesism pervades our language, from scholarly jargon
to street slang. Considered in relation to the plight of nonhuman
beings, the words of feminist poet Adrienne Rich express a terrible
absolute: "This is the oppressor's language."
Speciesist usage denigrates or discounts nonhuman
animals. For example, terming nonhumans "it" erases their gender and
groups them with inanimate things. Referring to them as "something"
(rather than "someone") obliterates their sentience and individuality.
Pure speciesism leads people to call a brain-dead human "who" but a
conscious pig "that" or "which."
Current usage promotes a false dichotomy between humans
and nonhumans. Separate lexicons suggest opposite behaviors and
attributes. We eat, but other animals feed. A woman is pregnant or
nurses her babies; a nonhuman mammal gestates or lactates. A dead human
is a corpse, a dead nonhuman a carcass or meat.
Everyday speech denies human-nonhuman kinship. We aren't
animals, primates, or apes. When we do admit to being animals, we label
other animals "lower" or "subhuman." Dictionary definitions of man
exaggerate human uniqueness and present characteristics typical of
humans (such as verbal ability) as marks of superiority, especially
Nonhuman-animal epithets insult humans by invoking
contempt for other species: rat, worm, viper, goose. The very word
animal conveys opprobrium. Human, in contrast, signifies everything
worthy. Like the remark that a woman has "the mind of a man," the
comment that a nonhuman is "almost human" is assumed to be praise. Both
While boasting of "human kindness," our species treats
nonhumans with extreme injustice and cruelty. Directly or indirectly,
most humans routinely participate in needless harm to other animals,
especially their captivity and slaughter. Whereas true vegetarianism
(veganism) promotes human health and longevity, consumption of
animal-derived food correlates with life-threatening conditions such as
heart disease, cancer, and hardening of the arteries. Still, our
language suggests that humans must eat products from nonhuman bodies. As
if we possessed a carnivore's teeth and digestive tract, thoughtless
cliché places us "at the top of the food chain."
To speciesists, needless killing is murder only if the
victim is human. In animal "farming" and numerous other forms of
institutionalized speciesism, nonhuman animals literally are slaves:
they're held in servitude as property. But few people speak of nonhuman
Many who readily condemn human victimization as
"heinous" or "evil" regard moralistic language as sensational or overly
emotional when it is applied to atrocities against nonhumans. They
prefer to couch nonhuman exploitation and murder in culinary,
recreational, or other nonmoralistic terms. That way they avoid
acknowledging immorality. Among others, Nazi vivisectors used the
quantitative language of experimentation for human, as well as nonhuman,
vivisection. Slaveholders have used the economic language of farming for
nonhuman and human enslavement. Why is such morally detached language
considered offensive and grotesque only with regard to the human
The media rarely acknowledge nonhuman suffering. Only
human misfortune garners strong words like tragic and terrible. When
thousands of U.S. cattle, left in the blazing sun on parched land, die
from heat and lack of water, reporters note the losses "suffered" by
Belittling words minimize nonhuman suffering and death.
As expressed in a New York magazine caption, antivivisectionists "oppose
testing on any creature-even a mouse." The word even ranks a mouse below
humans in sensitivity and importance. There's no reason to believe that
mice experience deprivation and pain less sharply than we do or value
their lives less, but our language removes them from moral
consideration. Who cares if millions of mice and rats are vivisected
each year? They're "only rodents." What does it matter if billions of
chickens live in misery until they die in pain and fear? They're "just
In speciesism's fictitious world, nonhumans willingly
participate in their own victimization. They "give" their lives in
vivisection and the food industry.
Further belying victimization, the language of
speciesist exploitation renders living animals mindless and lifeless.
They're "crops," "stock," hunting "trophies," and vivisection "tools."
Category labels born of exploitation imply that nonhuman
beings exist for our use. Furbearer tags a nonhuman person a potential
pelt. Circus animal suggests some natural category containing
hoop-jumping tigers and dancing bears, nonhumans of a "circus" type. The
verbal trick makes deprivation and coercion disappear.
Evil gathers euphemisms. Over millennia, speciesism has
compiled a hefty volume. Wildlife management sanctions the
bureaucratized killing of free-living nonhumans. Leather and pork serve
as comfortable code for skin and flesh. Domestication softens captivity,
subjugation, and forced breeding.
Positive words glamorize humans' ruthless genetic
manipulation of other species. Horses inbred for racing are
"thoroughbreds." However afflicted with disabilities, dogs inbred for
human pleasure and use are "purebreds," while the fittest mixed-breed
dogs are "mongrels" and "mutts."
With complimentary self-description, humans exonerate
themselves of wrongdoing. Food-industry enslavement and slaughter cause
suffering and death of colossal magnitude. Yet, consumers of flesh,
eggs, and nonhuman milk count themselves among "animal lovers."
Currently, misleading language legitimizes and conceals
the institutionalized abuse of nonhuman animals. With honest, unbiased
words, we can grant them the freedom and respect that are rightfully
Joan Dunayer is a writer whose publications include articles on language
and animal rights. Her work has appeared in journals, magazines, college
English textbooks, and anthologies. A former college English instructor,
she has master's degrees in English education, English literature, and
psychology. She is the author of Animal Equality: Language and
Liberation (Derwood, Maryland: Ryce Publishing, 2001), the first book on
speciesism and language.
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