On Speciesist Language.

from "A Note on Specieist Language"
by Piers Beirne.
Confronting Animal Abuse: Law, Criminology, and Human-Animal Relationships (2009).
New York: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 16-17.

 Reproduced with permission.

In June 2007, the outgoing British prime minister, Tony Blair, blamed the media for having contributed to his political downfall, complaining aggressively about the media’s double standards, stating that they hunted in packs and acted like feral beasts.

The often-violent images and metaphors of speciesist language are saturated with implicit declarations about how worthwhile lives differ from lives with little or no intrinsic value. For example, we refer without hesitation to humans as human “beings” – a symbolic term of personhood denoting volitional and sentient forms of life with self-consciousness and with bundles of rights and obligations that are worthy of respect. But we rarely if ever refer to nonhuman animals as “animal beings.” Rather, they are named simply as “animals” – the Other – an implicitly derogatory term synonymous with the notion that they are altogether different from humans and, as such, necessarily less important than humans and less worthy of consideration and respect.

Humans, instead, tend to be understood as complex creatures whose gender is an important item in terms of address. For example, we refer to Jane Smith as “Ms. Smith,” to Jack Jones as “Mr. Jones,” and to “she who…” or “he who…” Except for animals appointed as companions (“pets”), however, nonhuman animals are seen as undifferentiated objects each of whom is normally identified not as a “she” or a “he” but as an “it” (“it which…). Speciesism and sexism clearly often operate together and in tandem, with women and nonhuman animals depicted as objects to be controlled, manipulated, and exploited. Thus, when men describe women as “cows, “ “bitches, “ “(dumb) bunnies,” “birds,” “chicks,” “foxes,” and “fresh meat” and their genitalia as other species, they use derogatory language, essentially to relegate both women and animals to the inferior statuses of “less than male” and, even, “less than human.”

Some forms of speciesist language are seemingly more subtle. These often hinge on animals’ master status as the property of humans. “Fisheries,” for example, refers not to an objective ontological reality but to diverse species that are acted on as objects of commodification by humans and, as such, trapped or otherwise “harvested,” killed, and consumed. The same sort of egregious misdescription appears in many other categories as well, including “laboratory animals” (instead of “animals used in laboratories”), “pets,” “circus animals,” and “racehorses.” The last of these, to offer another example, misdescribes as “racehorses” those horses who are used as racehorses. Clearly, radical revision of speciesist language is long overdue. In some cases, new descriptions altogether are needed – for example, misothery for hatred and contempt for animals, animal sexual assault for bestiality, and theriocide for the killing of nonhuman animals by humans.

But the central juxtaposition, namely, that between humans and all other animals, seems a hard one to avoid. Several attempts have been made to overcome it, including “nonhuman animals,” a term that has been in vogue among many members of the animal protection community. Other candidates include the rather cumbersome “animals other than humans” (the preferred usage in the journal Society & Animals) and, derivative of this, Geertrui Cazaux’s clever if obscure acronym “aothas” (animals other than human animals). 


  1. This was interesting reading, thank you Roger.

    The thing is, obviously people don't realise that certain language is species ist. And I feel that even though we are called human beings, and use Mr. and Mrs. does not define humanity, as non humans are not defined by not being called animal beings or Mr. and Mrs. Other then maybe suffering non human individuals.

  2. Very well defined. And it is scary how words can equal slavery to some.