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The importance of language and word choice when it comes to animal rights

Updated: Jan 20


(by Clif Grant and Becci Pigeon)


The language we use when talking about animals really matters. We can use it to deliver our message and to subtly teach others and change their opinion.


Below are a few pointers that we have learned over time:

  • Never say 'I used to eat meat' or 'My partner still eats meat'. Instead say 'I used to eat animals' or 'My partner still eats animals'. To do otherwise is to contribute to what vegan and eco-feminist scholar Carol J. Adams defines as 'the absent referent', the function of which is '...to keep our 'meat' separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone...'

  • Never refer to an animal as 'it'. Use 'she', 'he', or 'they'. Animals are living creatures who we share this planet with, not emotionless objects.

  • Never refer to animals as 'pets' or to ourselves as their 'owners'. They are our family and our companions. Good alternatives are terms like 'guardian' and 'companion animal'.

  • Never, ever call animals stupid or dumb. Animals are so much smarter than most people realise.

  • If someone offers you food that includes an animal product and says 'Oh, you can’t eat this', consider responding, 'It’s not that I can’t eat it, I just choose not to'.

  • Avoid saying 'farm animals'--instead say 'farmed animals'. There is no such thing as a farm animal; there are only animals who are farmed. They are the ones we choose to exploit by farming them.

  • Be careful about the term 'factory farm'; using 'farm' is almost always more appropriate. There are two reasons for this: the first is that the vast majority of animal farms in the UK and world are factory farms. Labelling them separately gives listeners the impression that these massive, intensive operations are a specific subset of the industry, not the norm. It also implies that the two types of farms are very different to one another, and that the typical mutilations and cruelties that the public associates with factory farming (debeaking, castration, separating calves from their mothers, early slaughter, etcetera) don't exist on smaller farms--which, of course, they do.

  • Remember that animals are not a 'what' or a 'that', but a 'who'. Your dog isn't the one that lives with you but the one who lives with you. (In other words, if you wouldn't say 'that' for a human, don't use it for a non-human animal.) Similarly, animals are never 'something' but 'someone'.

  • And when possible--especially whilst discussing humans and animals--use 'human and non-human animals', thereby dismantling the us/them dichotomy.

  • Don't join the animal agriculture industry on their euphemism treadmill. As public scrutiny has increased over the years, official industry terms like 'debeaking' and 'detoeing' have been charmingly rebranded as 'beak trimming' and 'toe clipping'. The animals are no longer 'slaughtered'; they are 'processed' or even 'harvested'. A 'flock' or turkeys has become a 'crop' of turkeys. And so on. While there is no reason to exaggerate, be sure to stick to the original terms when talking to people.

While none of these may not seem like a big issue to some people, we need to realise that the language we use when talking about animals can really help or hinder our fight for their equality.


To quote Ingrid Newkirk, 'Referring to, and thus thinking of, animals not as sentient beings who have relationships, personalities, and emotions but rather as inanimate objects enables humans to justify subjugating and using them in any way they see fit.' (Animal cruelty is part of our day-to-day language. But we can change it.)


Can you think of any more examples? Feel free to add them in the comments below!


Further reading:


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