This morning, PETA sent a letter to Merriam-Webster requesting that the dictionary remove harmful definitions of pig (“a dirty, gluttonous, or repulsive person”), snake (“a worthless or treacherous fellow”), and dog (“a worthless or contemptible person”), pointing out that lending credence to such inaccurate descriptions fuels speciesism, a human-supremacist attitude that slights, insults, and denigrates animals.
“Words matter, and Merriam-Webster is in a position to relegate outdated language to the dustbin of history and help usher in a more respectful view of other species,” says PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. “PETA encourages everyone to reject mischaracterizations of animals and reflect upon their talents, communication abilities, social skills, and more. Saying, ‘as loyal as a goose,’ ‘as protective of their young as a pigeon,’ ‘as flexible as an octopus,’ and ‘as clever as a mouse,’ would be more apt and accurate.”
PETA’s letter to Merriam-Webster Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski follows.
January 26, 2021
Dear Mr. Sokolowski,
I’m writing on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and our more than 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide with an important request: We would like you to remove from your dictionary all animal-related slurs whose purpose is to debase human beings. Eliminating such language will help move us closer to a more respectful and empathetic world. This is perhaps a more pressing area of concern than most people realize. Please allow me to explain.
PETA has always urged people to stop using language that is meant to hurt others’ feelings and denigrate those who happen not to be human, in much the same way that we now understand how wrong it is to attribute undesirable traits, like miserliness or laziness, to certain nationalities or ethnicities. It was once acceptable for Carl Linnaeus, the “father of taxonomy,” to correlate skin color with disposition (listing Americans as “choleric,” Europeans as “sanguine,” Asians as “melancholic,” and Africans as “phlegmatic”). Looking back at this, we are rightly appalled. And assigning a negative meaning to an objective, neutral word for an animal, e.g., “pig” (“a dirty, gluttonous, or repulsive person”), “snake” (“a worthless or treacherous fellow”), or “dog” (“a worthless or contemptible person”), among others, is also unacceptable.
Calling humans various animal names is meant to sting, yet pigs, for instance, are intelligent, lead complex social lives, and show empathy for other pigs in distress. They have rescued drowning humans and alerted their guardians to fires. Snakes are clever, have family relationships, and prefer to associate with their relatives rather than with strangers. If taken many miles away, they can find their way back home even if it takes two years. Dogs have personalities as varied and distinct as those of the humans who care for them. A dog living in a human home has been shown to understand, on average, some 400 words of human language simply from paying close attention. Yet humans don’t even try to understand their language.
As you know, language matters and is essential to reflecting our ever-evolving culture. Perpetuating the idea that animals are sly, dirty, heartless, and so on is improper and inaccurate, desensitizes the public, and paves the way for the normalization of cruelty to and violence against animals. I look forward to hearing that Merriam-Webster will remove these harmful definitions and thereby encourage people to recognize that attributing ill character to these thinking, feeling animals who experience joy, suffering, love, and grief, just as we do, is unacceptable. Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Very truly yours,
Ingrid E. Newkirk
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