If we say He’s no better than an animal it couldn’t be more insulting, could it? Have you ever stopped to think how we use animal comparisons in an almost invariably negative way? Only we adults though, not kids.
Because animals are huge in kids’ lives. If you have small children anywhere in your family, you’re sure to have noticed that some of the very first words they learn to speak will be doggie, horsie, piggie, kitty. Closely followed by woof woof, moo, baa, and for the more linguistically adventurous, oink oink!
What do they take to bed with them to cuddle at night? Toy animals. What’s on their bookshelves? More animals – in fact there’s scarcely a book without them. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Pooh Bear, The Cat in the Hat, Fantastic Mr Fox, Peter Rabbit. And just look at Disney films: Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, Dumbo, 101 Dalmations. The list goes on ………
Kids seem to have a natural affinity with animals. From the back seat of the car they point excitedly to cows in fields, sheep on hills. Outdoors they lean over fences and ask for apples to feed donkeys. At the pond, bread for the ducks. And if I had a pound for every time a little one has asked me if they could pat my dog!
So at what stage in kids’ innocent lives do animals move right down the ranks, and the very word “animal” take on an uglier meaning? As adults our everyday speech completely betrays an unconscious take on animals as altogether inferior beings. Because of course, we are not animals. We do not belong to the animal kingdom. We are separate and above. Sadly, we just seem to soak in this cultural brainwashing as we grow up without even noticing.
Just take those three simple words Animal, Beast, Brute. In reverse order: Brute – dictionary definition – a brutal, insensitive or crude person, not characterised by intelligence or reason, savage, cruel, carnal, heavy, devoid of feeling. Beast – a cruel, coarse, filthy or otherwise beastlike person. In the Bible, the beast is the Antichrist. It can’t get much worse than that. Then we have the adjective, bestial. Enough said. Animal – definition – inhuman or brutish person.
All three words Animal, Brute, Beast, entered our language from the Latin in the Middle Ages. So what does it say that we are still loading them with these negative meanings not decades, not even centuries, but almost a millennium later?
And yet, the root of the word animal is the same as anima which means breath, vital force, soul and spirit
So when we use animal, why can it not carry this positive, beautiful meaning for us? In fact, just the opposite of the inhuman or brutish person. (Interesting little feminist footnote – anima is the feminine form in Latin, while the masculine, animus means hostility, enmity. One up for the women!)
Then we get to more specific animal name-calling. There are a lot of possibilities, some reserved exclusively for women. Shrew – a woman of violent temper and speech, Vixen – an ill-tempered or quarrelsome woman, Wasp Cat Dog Bitch Sow Cow Mare Chick Bird Butterfly Plenty there to be discussed about sexism, feminism and outdated social norms! But we’ll move on to the unisex insults. Chicken Hog Pig Swine Sheep Ape Donkey Ass Mule Snake Rat Shark Gorilla Louse Skunk Toad Goose Bear And you can come up with plenty more, I’ve no doubt.
In addition there are animal phrases in everyday speech we just take for granted, but when you actually stop to think about them they’re quite horrible Flogging a dead horse, In the doghouse, Headless chicken, Make a pig’s ear, More than one way to kill a cat, Use as a guinea pig
If anyone says to me “He’s such a pig” I say “Don’t insult pigs!”
Way back when though, man thought very differently about animals. Animals were not just considered equals, but superior in many respects – birds could fly in the air, fish stay underwater, and no man could outrun a deer. As RV Russell puts it
It was far otherwise with primitive man, who first recognised the existence of qualities most necessary to him, as strength, courage, swiftness, sagacity, cunning and endurance, as being displayed by certain animals in a greater degree than he possessed them himself. …. Thus certain animals were venerated on account of the qualities associated with them.
It’s something we appear to have lost somewhere down the centuries, and the view we hold of animals today is literally medieval, stuck in the mud of the Middle Ages. Now in the 21st century we have fabulous #wildlife films letting us into animal secrets like never before. New research is constantly revealing more of their everyday lives, and their various astounding, superhuman abilities. Superhuman because most animals can do things no human could. And with the availability and rapid spread of information, no-one today can not be aware that most importantly, animals have emotions, and the ability to suffer. As heartbreakingly, billions do every single day.
Now, today, there can be NO excuse not to understand and acknowledge the rightful place, the equal place, all other animals share with us on planet Earth. So here’s my plea: let’s go back full circle to renew the esteem in which they were held by our distant forebears in. And embrace the better definition, that
all animals, equally with the human animal, possess breath and vital force And, what humankind has tried to deny them – soul and spirit How very precious life and living creatures truly are
What we need is a paradigm shift – dictionary definition – a time when the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely. Yes, that is exactly what we need. We will see the day when calling someone an animal means a person with the grace, ability, intelligence and feeling of our non-human friends, a person of spirit and soul. We will make it happen – or die trying!