Changing the words

There’s a relationship between how we think and the words we use, and it’s circular in nature. However, when your culture has habits of language that encourage certain ideas, it can be worth stopping to look at those. When I was a young person, it was totally reasonable to write books in which the assumed reader was male. That puts over a message that women don’t really count.

When we take nature words out of children’s dictionaries to replace them with the language of the internet, that’s both a reflection of what’s going on, and a furthering of it. When we don’t have words to talk about things, those things are harder to share and explain. The words we have and the words we use, matter. They shape our thinking and our interactions, they are the basis of our culture.

I was interested to see PETA challenging some of the animal abuse norms in language recently. I’ve dropped ‘killing two birds with one stone’ from my own way of talking because it’s not what I want to say. They advocated against describing test subjects as guinea pigs, but I’m inclined to go the other way. Let’s be lab rats and test beagles when we are subject to experiments ourselves. It’s a good way of reminding each other that this stuff happens.

Sadly, the PETA alternative phrases were awful and sounded forced and silly. You don’t get meaningful language shifts by dictating in this way. It’s better to open it up and invite people to reconsider and then see what happens. Where the power lies is in looking at habits of speech and what they suggest, and being willing to rethink them. Why do we use animal names as insults? (bitch, catty, cow, mare, bullshit, etc) Why do we call especially nasty humans animals? The idea that animals are inferior to humans is woven through our speech. It’s worth thinking about and watching for.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “Changing the words

  • Ryan Cronin

    It’s easy to mock PETA (and I have so many issues with them as an organisation) for this, and I agree the alternatives sound forced, but it has got people thinking I hope. Language does not just explain our reality, it forms our reality by mediating our experiences.

    I think it’s always worth questioning the words we use and the meanings we assign to them.

  • Bill Watson

    Hear, hear. Changing language artificially is pointless. It removes the colourful nature of spontaneous colloquialisms to the detriment of free expression. That doesn’t mean that either animals or people are denigrated in any deliberate way.

  • syrbal-labrys

    I have often refused, for instance, to call a sneaky person a “weasel” or a “snake” – I appreciate and respect those animals too much! But it does reduce my insult list to a boringly short list of old standards.

  • TPWard

    I’ve been trying to avoid language that reinforces the idea that corporations are people, like “Exxon said” and referring to companies as “who.” Shifting one’s one language is not always difficult, but attempts at shifting the language of others can’t be overt or it always ends badly.

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