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Animals in the Vernacular
A revealing article on animal exploitation in language.
While driving to work one day, out of frustration I heard myself say aloud to another driver "you're driving like a turtle", "move along little doggie". It bothers me to drive slowly since there are many other places I prefer to be than in a car.
What bothered me more that day was that in one sentence I used animals as similies twice. It occurred to me how many times I have said: he works like a horse, who let the cat out of the bag, eats like a pig, like water off a duck's back, he's a little ham, scaredy cat, and feeling sheepish. Most of us have grown up with language that uses animals as analogies, similies and metaphors and have not given much notice to how demoralizing it is to use animals in a negative context.
Since I prefer animals to people, I thought it is about time I start to think before I speak. I used to sing a ditty that goes:
you can tell a man who boozes
by the company he chooses,
so the pig got up and slowly walked away
I think that is a compliment to the pig, but just the same inappropriate.
It's alright to call a cowardly human a coward, but certainly not a weasel as I personally have done. My own brother, Kevin, who is deaf told me yesterday when I called him silly, that he is a wise owl. How many times have we heard that someone has a memory like an elephant or that a doting mother is like a mother hen? Is it okay to show animals such as a hen in a positive light when comparing her to a good human mother or praise an elephants memory? Last time I was with my granddaughter I accused her of having ants in her pants because she was showing impatience. When she was dressed up I said she was the cat's meow.
I never realized how often I use animals while speaking until I made a concerted effort to censor my speech: sly as a fox, a slithering snake, a bird in the hand, dumb as an ox, smells a little fishy, stop beating a dead horse, silly goose, a horse of a different color, stubborn as a mule, on a wild goose chase, walking on eggs, and referring to animals crammed into trucks to be taken to slaughter as packed like sardines. There's more than one way to skin a cat, takes the cake! I have not used all of these phrases, especially the last, but have used my share.
It is really amazing how conditioned many of us are and how difficult it can be to strive for change, even little changes. Alec Baldwin, who is a vegan and animal activist, had his phone message left for his daughter, calling her a selfish little piggy, smeared all over the world by the media and put on youtube. It seemed shocking to hear an activist refer to his daughter as a selfish piggy, but, I'm sure he did not think of what he was saying while speaking from frustration.
I don't like profanity, vulgarity or slang, and I especially don't like animals being referred to in a negative way. What's the saying? "so soon we get old, so late we get smart". I think that is appropriate, but better late than never.