As a writer, I have a fascination with and appreciation for the English language. It's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but it's equally true that a word can be worth a thousand pictures. Words are powerful. Think about the weight behind simple phrases such as "I love you", "I quit", "I think we should just be friends", "You got the job", "Will you marry me?", "Where do I sign?", and "It's a girl!". We can all remember times in our lives when a compliment from a boss had us on cloud nine, someone asking "Are you OK?" brought us to tears and a simple "I'm sorry" made all the difference.
Words can change our lives.
They also help to shape our ideas. A few years ago, did you know what "yolo" meant? How about "twerking"? "Clickbait"? "Adorbs"? Now those words and the ideas they represent are so readily accepted that they have been added to The Oxford English Dictionary. The most recent update sees nearly 500 new words and over 900 newly revised and updated words enter the Dictionary.
And words affect not only ideas and emotions surrounding humans but also how we relate to the rest of the Earth's inhabitants. It's time for us to acknowledge another word, one that's been around for a long time yet is still largely unrecognised: speciesism. Speciesism is the belief that all other animals are inferior to human beings and thus humans are justified in exploiting them. And speciesism is unfortunately prevalent in our language, too.
Would you want to be called a pig, a whale, a chicken, a snake, a weasel or a rat? It's doubtful.
Never mind that people who have spent time around pigs often compare them to dogs because they're so sociable, playful and protective. Whales are some of the most majestic animals on the planet. Chickens' personalities are as varied and distinct as humans'. Ball pythons are easy-going, docile and even sweet, while weasels are bold and clever. And rats are among the most empathetic of all animals. They often exhibit much more empathy than humans do.
We describe people who are out-of-control, aggressive or violent as "acting like an animal". But humans are the only ones who wage wars against members of their own species.
We often refer to an animal not as "she" or "he" but as "it" - the same word we assign to an object. Microsoft Word quickly flags any attempt to refer to an animal as "who". Even people who have beloved animal companions may refer to their animals as "it" and themselves as "owners", implying that the animals are their possessions, like bikes or video games.
Referring to and thus thinking of animals not as sentient beings who have families, personalities and emotions but rather as owned objects allows humans to justify subjugating and using them in any way we see fit. It fuels the disconnect that allows people to declare themselves "animal lovers" even as they order chicken nuggets at a drive-through, sit on the leather seats of their cars, wear animal-tested cosmetics, and go to the zoo. Speciesist language also allows us to trivialise cruelty to animals. Most of us would never support stoning birds, but we use the phrase "killing two birds with one stone." And hopefully we would never "beat a dead horse" (or a living horse, for that matter), but our language suggests otherwise.
As people have come to recognise the power of words, we've worked hard to eliminate hate speech and the prejudices that usually accompany it, including sexism, racism and bigotry. It's high time that we also recognised the devastating effects of speciesism and worked to counteract it and the words that fuel it.
Words have the power to change animals' lives, too. We should let them.