Day 9 -or- Say What?

A coworker sent me a link to a story about the verbiage we use when we refer to animals that was published by TIME’s NewsFeed. (http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/04/29/animal-academics-using-the-word-pet-insults-your-pet-er-companion/?hpt=T2)

The article refers to a report published in the Journal of Animal Ethics and to research done by the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics, the University of Illinois and Penn State University. These studies show that “using ‘derogatory’ terms such as ‘critters,’ ‘beasts,’ and — you guessed it — ‘pets’ when referring to animals of any kind can affect the way they are treated,” and that “using these words to describe animals degrades the relationship that exists between humans and these… friends.”

You might laugh at this idea, but haven’t you ever heard the phrase “choose your words wisely?” The words we use may seem simple enough, but they carry a history with them and can carry certain connotations (or emotional associations) with them that give others insight as to the type of person we are or how we truly feel about a certain matter. A simple example is if I said “That varmit next door won’t stop barking” instead of “the neighbor’s pet won’t stop barking,” one might assume a deeper hatred toward the neighbor’s dog, and perhaps to animals in general. Varmit is something you hear people call rats, mice, and animals that they consider to be dirty pests in general. Pet seems pretty neutral to most of us, but what connotations does “pet” hold? (Oh, how I wish I had access to the Oxford English Dictionary right now). I’m guessing “pet” refers to someone or something lower than us. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we will dislike, demean, or harm this being we call “pet;” it just means that we think that we are, in whatever way, better (or smarter or more worthy etc). This attitude will in turn affect how we treat said pet. We may say they don’t belong on the couch or we may decide to kick him/her when she is bad. There are extremes in either direction.

So when the article says that how we refer to our pets affects how we treat them, I have to disagree. I think it’s the other way around. How we refer to our pets is a result of what we think of them, our “feelings” towards them, and the way we treat them. Our words matter, but it is our attitude that influences the words we decide to use (at least this is my opinion as I have done no extensive research). Say for example we take away the word. Pretend we are mute. What exists there is the feelings we harbor when we choose the word in our mind and our attitude about a given “thing” or situation. What’s in your heart will most definitely influence your choice.

And of course this goes for humans as well. There are derogatory words for women, blacks, immigrants, poor people, children, the elderly, and even the mentally handicapped. These words are used because the person using them feels superior, or because they feel anger, disgust, or contempt toward someone else. So in the case of pets, I don’t think the actual word (the phonetic sound we make with our mouth) matters. I think the attitude behind the word we choose to say and how we say it matters. Animals don’t know dictionary definitions and historical connotations. But they sense our attitudes and meaning when we speak based on our body language, facial expressions tone, etc. I frequently call my cat stinky, but I do so in an affectionate manner while talking in a “baby” voice. Our relationship is not affected by this. She doesn’t know what I’m saying and I don’t love her any less because she smells like litter and tuna.

And really, humans know the different meanings behind the words that are being said for the same reasons. Even with the typed or written word, often times we immediately know the writer’s attitude and can probably guess their facial expression and tone. So again, words are just sounds. We give them meaning, action, and purpose.

So I say call your pet whatever you want (within reason!); it really won’t matter to him/her as long as you’re providing a safe, loving environment.

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