How to Counter Speciesism with your Language
From Animal Rights/Vegan Activist Strategies Articles Archive

April 2019

Species Revolution

Language is a powerful tool. The words we choose do more than name or describe things; they assign status and value. Be careful, then, how you choose words that refer to non-human animals, for you may be using expressions that maintain prejudices against them.
— Noreen Mola and The Blacker Family

Why is language important?

  • Studies have shown that language is influential in our perception of the world. Cultures that have different words for colors or directions have entirely different concepts of these things.

  • This helps to answer the common question, “Why does language matter if animals cannot understand the words I use about them?” They may not be offended by what we say, but our words are influencing other humans around us. If it’s wrong to objectify women even when there are no women around to be hurt by yours words, then it’s wrong to speak disrespectfully about animals even when they don’t understand us.

  • Anti-speciesist language is a form of advocacy in itself, causing others to ask why we choose the words that we do and starting discussions about the overall treatment of animals.

  • Other social justice movements have addressed the usage of language, so it’s time the animal rights movement does too. From feminists rejecting the universal usage of the words “man” and “mankind,” to banning certain derogatory terms entirely in the anti-ableist movement, activists have historically recognized the importance of language in how marginalized people are represented and treated.

How to Counter Speciesism with your Language

Avoiding Objectification

Because animals are not objects to be owned, but their own persons...

  • Never use "it" to refer to an animal. Instead, use "he," "she," or "they." If we don't know a particular animal well enough to know their sex, “they” is a perfectly suitable word.

    Example: I saw a cat in the front yard, but it they ran away before I could see if [it] they had a collar.

  • Use "someone," "everybody," etc, instead of "something," "everything," etc, to refer to animals.

    Example: [Something] Someone is making a noise outside.

  • Use "guardian," "parent," "roommate," or "caregiver" to refer to yourself in relation to nonhumans who share your home. We are not their owners, because they are not our property. The words you choose might depend on your particular relationship with them and what feels most appropriate in your home.

    Example: The rabbit's [owner] caregiver took her to the vet.

  • Avoid the words that restaurants and grocery stores use to refer to dead animals. Instead of “pork,” say “pig.” Instead of “beef,” say “cow.” Instead of the singular usages of “chicken” and “fish” when referring to them as food, say “a chicken” or “a fish’s body.” When talking about the secretions and body parts of other animals, label them with the animal from whom they were stolen. Say “cows’ milk,” “goats’ milk,” and “chickens’ eggs.” Body parts were “a cow’s ribs,” “a pig’s feet,” “a chicken’s wing,” “a frog’s legs,” and so on. Remember to make them possessive, instead of just “cow milk” and “chicken wings” because it’s important to remind others that those animals had ownership over these things that have been taken from them.

    Example: They ate chickens’ eggs for breakfast and beef ribs a cow’s ribs for dinner.

  • Similarly, avoid using any words that refer to animals or their secretions as food, such as “meat” and “animal products.” And remember, there’s no such thing as “nonvegan food.”

    Example: I don’t eat meat or any animal products animals or secretions that have been stolen from them.

    Example: There was both vegan food and nonvegan food products of violence there.

    Note: It may be necessary to use objectifying words for practical reasons, such as when ordering food at a nonvegan restaurant when you need to make sure that what you’re ordering is vegan.

    Note: The word “product” can be used in different ways. Most of the time, when we say “animal products,” we are using the term in a way that commodifies eggs and cows’ milk, implying that they are products to be sold and consumed (even if we don’t do so ourselves). That’s why we suggest staying away from the phrase. However, saying “products of violence” like in the example is using the word to imply that what (or who) is being consumed is the result or outcome of violence.
  • Don’t use the word “pet” to describe the animals you care for. Instead, call them “roommate,” “friend,” or “companion.” These are words that describe your relationship, so they are better alternatives than saying “my dog,” since this is another way of implying ownership. We suggest saying “animal/dog/fish companion” rather than “companion animal/dog/fish,” as well. More on this reasoning below.

    Example: I have three [pets] nonhuman roommates.

    "The problem is that humans have victimized animals to such a degree that they are not even considered victims. They are not even considered at all. They are nothing; they don't count; they don't matter. They are commodities like TV sets and cell phones. We have actually turned animals into inanimate objects—sandwiches and shoes."
    -Gary Yourofsky

Emphasizing Individuality

Because animals each have their own personalities and interests, instead of being mindless groups only differentiated by species…

  • Avoid referring to multiple nonhuman animals with singular word forms. This perpetuates a view of them as one collective thing. Add -s or -es to the end of words when appropriate--"fishes" instead of "fish," "sheeps" instead of "sheep," "mooses" instead of "moose." Similarly, use "chickens" instead of "poultry," “pigs” instead of “swine,” and "cows" instead of "cattle."

    Example: [Salmon] Salmons are anadromous, meaning they are born in freshwater, travel to saltwater to live most of their lives, and return to freshwater to lay eggs.

  • Do not identify animals by the exploitative situation they have been put it. Instead of “circus animal” or “food animal,” say “animals exploited in circuses/killed for food.” Since “companion” functions the same way in the phrase “companion animal,” we recommend saying “animal companion” instead, because this does not relegate their role to being a companion, but rather describes the kind of companion that they are to us, and could easily say “human companion” instead.

    Example: At the next protest, activists will be advocating for lab animals animals exploited in labs.

    Note: We advise against using the phrase “farmed animal” as well, when speaking broadly about species. A pig on a sanctuary is not a farm animal or a farmed animal; but maybe he is a formerly farmed animal if that’s his story. Even in this case, the best usage might be “an animal who escaped a farm” or simply “farm refugee,” which we will discuss more below. Although in some cases “farmed animal” might be the simplest way to get the point across, never say “farm animal.” This euphemizes what happens to animals on farms.
  • Never refer to animals as “voiceless.” Animals speak, humans just prefer not to listen. Just because we do not understand their language does not mean that we have the authority to erase it.

    Example: I am so inspired by the way you [are a voice for the voiceless] amplify the voices of the silenced.

    "There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard."
    —Arundhati Roy

Boycotting Industry Terms

  • Animal exploiters use euphemisms in an attempt to disguise reality. To identify places that hurt animals, say "slaughterhouse," "aquaprison," "hunting area," or "enslavement facility" instead of "abattoir," "aquarium," "game refuge," and "farm," respectively.

    Example: Baboons were confined in the [biomedical research lab]  vivisection lab.

  • Evidence shows that nonhumans suffer just like we do, so our language should reflect that. Abusers like to say "discomfort" instead of "pain," or "dispatch" instead of "murder."

    Example: The men artificially inseminated raped the cow so that she would become pregnant.

Dismantling the Us/Them Binary

  • To separate ourselves from the industries that exploit animals...

    Do not use language that masks the fact that animals feel pain. Abusers like to say that animals are “dispatched” or “processed,” but we should say that they are “killed” and “murdered.” They also say that they “raise” animals, but in reality, they bring them into existence just to keep them captive and then slaughter them.

    Example: Smithfield [raises] enslaves and then [processes] murders almost 30 million pigs a year.

  • Change the names of the places that animals are being exploited to accurately reflect their situation. Say “slaughterhouse” instead of “packing plant,” “processing plant,” or “abattoir.” Say “aquaprison” instead of “aquarium,” “vivisection lab” instead of “research facility,” and “hunting area” instead of “game refuge.”

    Example: There are baboons confined in the [research facility] vivisection lab.

  • Avoid words that the industries use to imply that animals are inanimate objects. For example, in animal agriculture, they say that animals are “cultivated,” “managed,” and “produced.” They refer to their work as “animal husbandry.” These words, like “farmed,” are appropriate when used in reference to plants, but injurious when used to mask the abuse of nonhuman animals. And remember that animals are never “crops.”

    Example: More [chickens] vegetables should be cultivated to feed the growing human population.

  • Do not use industrial names for exploitative practices when they fail to describe what is really happening to animals (which is far too often). Instead of “artificial insemination,” say “forcible impregnation” or “rape.” When you can, explain the processes of dehorning, declawing, debeaking, and other acts of violenting removing a part of an animal's’ body. This is better than simply using the word in a list of facts about what happens to animals in these industries, because people often don’t understand the enormity of these mutilations. These words may give off the impression that removing these body parts are simple procedures rather than an act that disables the animals for the rest of their lives. Avoid referring to the practice of mutilating fishes as “fishing.” To use the name of their species to refer to the act of killing them is frankly disgusting.

    Example: In the meat industry, chickens are debeaked. chickens’ beaks are seared off with hot blades so that they won’t peck at each other in their close confinement. Many chickens die of starvation due to the pain of this mutilation, which is dubbed “debeaking” by the industry.
    Note: For more on why animals should be seen as rape victims, and how we can talk about this issue responsibly.

  • Be mindful of the words that you use to refer to the animals themselves as well. Animal agriculture refers to animals as “livestock” and vivisectors refer to animals as “research models” and “specimens.” Similarly, when farmers say they have “1,000 head of cattle,” it is a way to distance themselves from the individuals being exploited. Avoid using these words.

    Example: Over 99% of livestock animals exploited for food are on factory farms.

More About Dismantling the Us/Them Binary

To acknowledge that we have much more in common with other animals than is usually recognized by our species...

  • Say "person/people" in reference to all sentient beings—not just humans. “Beings” and “earthlings” are appropriate too, but “people” implies more than any other word that nonhuman animals also have rights.

    Example: Six people live in our house—three humans, two cats, and one fish.

  • When using labels for other beings that could apply to humans as well (animal, primate, mammal), place the words "nonhuman" or “other” in front of it. This serves as a reminder that humans are not above the animal kingdom, but a part of it.

    Example: Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a movie about nonhuman primates taking over the world.

  • Identify nonhuman animals with words that are typically only used for humans. Here’s a working list: refugee, victim, comrade, survivor, friend, child, family member, activist, resident.

    Example: Luna is a survivor of the pet trade.

Refusing Pejorative Figures of Speech

  • Because our language often disrespects and even harms animals with our idioms and insults...
  • Create compassionate versions of violent idioms. Our working list with "violent" and "alternatives":
  • Violent: “Kill two birds with one stone.”
    Alternatives: “Feed two birds with one scone.”
    “Love two birds with one heart.”
    “Cut two carrots with one knife.”

    “Beat a dead horse.”
    “Brush a groomed horse.”
    “Feed a fed horse.”

    “Like shooting fish in a barrel.”
    “Like picking berries from a basket.”

    “More than one way to skin a cat.”
    “More than one way to skin potatoes.”
    “More than one way to pet a cat.”

    “Quit cold turkey.”
    “Quit cold Tofurky.”

    “Bring home the bacon.”
    “Bring home the bagels.”
    “Bring home the tempeh bacon.”

    “Let the cat out of the bag.”
    “Spill the beans.”

    “Take the bull by the thorns.”
    “Take the flower by the thorns.”

    “Be the guinea pig.”
    “Be the test tube.”

    “Hold your horses.”
    “Hold on.”
  • Don’t use animals’ names as insults. Animals who are commonly disrespected this way are chickens, cows, whales, rats, snakes, dogs, sheeps, weasels, monkeys, and badgers. Most of the time, these insults are based on false stereotypes about animals, and their usage continues to normalize these ideas about them. For example, chickens are not cowardly like speciesists would like us to think; they are known to be stoic protectors of their flocks.

    Example: That politician is a pig repulsive.

Prioritizing Sentience or Personhood Over Humanness

  • Because there is no right that is inherently for humans and not for anyone else...

    Move away from saying “human rights” and instead try “sentient rights.” Usually whatever we are talking about is also a right that animals deserve as well, such as water or health care. Avoid slogans such as “women’s rights are human rights,” because the rights that are at stake--reproductive autonomy, freedom from sexual harassment, protection from discrimination—are all rights that animals deserve too.

    Example: Life is a [human] sentient right.

  • Replace “dehumanizing” with “depersonifying” to remind others that personhood, not humanness, is the criteria for being treated with dignity. Describing an experience as dehumanizing is commonplace when one has been abused, but this is problematic for two reasons: 1) It is a recognition that animals are treated worse than humans, without actually challenging that system, and 2) It is a reinforcement of the idea that humans deserve better treatment than nonhumans.

    Example: Spending the night in jail was a [dehumanizing] depersonifying experience.

  • Change the word “humanity” in contexts that imply that we are the only species that matters or that there is an essence that humans have that others don’t. “Crimes against humanity” are really crimes against all beings. “Where is your humanity?” is an empty question that should be “Where is your compassion?” or “Where is your heart?”

    Example: Sustainable development is imperative for the sake of [humanity] all earthlings.

Remembering Ourselves as Allies

To center animals rather than ourselves...

  • Do not refer to human activists as “heroes” for animals. We are still in the oppressor position and should remain humble. If a label is necessary, choose “ally” instead.

    Example: “He exemplifies allyship to animals” instead of “He is such an amazing hero for animals.”

  • When talking about the stories of animals, make them the subjects of sentences. This puts the focus on animals rather than us.

    Example: “Ariel was liberated” instead of “We liberated Ariel.”

  • When talking about the human acts of violence, make us the subjects of sentences. This reinforces that we are the ones responsible for their suffering.

    Example: “We suffocate fishes to death” instead of “Fishes are suffocated to death.”

  • Do not label establishments that hurt animals as “vegan-friendly.” A restaurant isn’t friendly to vegans if they serve the bodies of animals, even if they have vegan options too.

    Example: “Chipotle is a vegan-friendly restaurant has vegan options.”

  • Never talk about veganism as a personal choice, or indicate that nonveganism is just as good an action as veganism. Veganism is imperative to seeing animals as equals, and it’s our responsibility to not let nonvegans become comfortable with their complacency.

    Example:  “Veganism is a stance against injustice” instead of “veganism is a personal choice.”

Normalizing Vegan Products

Because choosing products that don’t harm animals is normal, not weird...

Say “vegan cheese” when you need to differentiate what you’re buying from products of violence. Don’t say “faux” or “fake.” Vegan cheeses (and eggs, meats, etc) replicate familiar tastes that many of us grew up with, but just because they are made with plants instead of suffering doesn’t mean that they are less real. Remember that products of violence are often filled with artificial flavors and colors because they’ve been processed so much, so why validate that as the “real thing”? Similarly, if a burger came from a cow, don’t call that a “regular” burger in comparison to your veggie burger.

Example: They had both [regular] nonvegan burgers and vegan burgers there.

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