Before I even met her, I was told what a grumpy face she had. Photos bore the observations out, although the bad haircut really didn’t help. A haircut that undermined all scope for dignity, combined with a grumpy face – so easy to make a joke or two at her expense. Meeting her confirmed the impression, although she was also clearly shy and wary of people. I didn’t know her name, but I called her ‘grumpy cat’ and said it warmly, and she came to me, and we made friends.
The next time I saw her, I simply said ‘hey, grumpy cat!’ and she ran to me, purring. I think she’d remembered. She’d been climbing about under vehicles, not grooming herself, I asked for a brush, but apparently her brush had been taken, along with her litter tray, dry bed (a waterlogged cat bed remained) and scratching post. She was not in a good way, and with the nights getting colder, I could not bear to leave her living outside. We made a snap decision and asked if we could take her home. The chap she had been left with had said he couldn’t really take her in because he’s hugely allergic to her. A situation desperately unfair on both of them.
I brought her home, and started calling her ‘beautiful cat’ and asserting that in there somewhere, she was almost certainly a princess. I don’t go in for monarchy amongst humans, but it’s a whole other thing with cats. We groomed her – a vast amount in those first days, but only a little bit each day since as she’s become keen on washing herself. As her eyes became less sore, it became obvious that some of her facial expressions had been due to sore eyes all along. As a half Persian, half Rag Doll, she needs her face washing pretty regularly. You can learn a lot with a search engine about how to take care of a cat.
The change in her face was rapid. She can be a really smiley cat now. She beams at us, with big, open eyes, and a cheerful expression on her cute little face. We tell her she is adorable, and charming, and all things of that ilk, and she basks in the praise.
How much language any given creature understands, is difficult to judge. They certainly learn key words at great speed – Vet, food, out, and the like. Tones of voice are very important in animal communications – they hear warmth and ridicule, certainly. Given the speed with which grumpy cat stopped being grumpy cat and started being beautiful princess cat, I have to wonder how much difference our words have been making to her. It probably also helps that we don’t shout at her, we reward good behaviour and generally make life easy. She’s pretty chilled out, and that too has an impact on the grumpy face.
Of course in humans, the effect of language tends to be much more immediate and pronounced even than this. Especially in children. It’s so easy to tell a child who they are, what they look like and what, if anything, they are good for. The child who is a beautiful princess for whom everything must be perfect has a very different life from the child who is an ugly waste of space. Not just because of the power of the words over the child, but because of the power of the words over the person speaking them. We talk ourselves into a certain relationship with reality.
Perhaps in part I see her as a beautiful cat because I have chosen to recognise what is lovely in her. My words have consequences for me. And so I am blessed by having this lovely, gentle, generous, well behaved little creature in my life, and cannot recognise in her the grumpy, messy, angry creature I’d heard about. Changing the language won’t always change reality to this degree, but it makes it a good deal easier to alter relationships and behaviour and that can have enormous consequences.