Verily, every man at his best state is altogether vanity.
  - Psalms 39:5

We are not normally given to Biblical quotation in the Lounge, but this month we'll start off that way as we explore an odd phenomenon of language using the Visual Thesaurus: namely, its relentless anthropocentrism, which, as you can see by the handy thumbnail definition in the thesaurus, is "an inclination to evaluate reality exclusively in terms of human values."

But wait, you're thinking. Why shouldn't language be anthropocentric? After all, who else, in the rest of creation, uses it? True, we may employ language in issuing directives to Fido and Fluffy, but this activity gets us mixed results at best, and the quadrupeds never do respond in kind, much as we might like them to.

The Nature of the Beast

What we're getting at here can perhaps best be revealed by looking at a few examples. Take beast, for instance. You get wildcat, wolf, brute, none of which has any dependable positive associations, and 2/3 of which refer to other animals. If you zoom in on brute, the going gets tougher: beastly, bestial, brutish. Nothing you want as company at your dinner table there!

These two words, brute and beast, are both quite old in English - from the 12th and 14th centuries, respectively - and in their original meanings they serve one purpose only: to distinguish Us from Them. Beast has served mainly to distinguish the "lower animals" (as we designate them) from humankind; brute, which started out as an adjective and still has a job to do in that department, has traditionally served to spotlight the lack of intelligence, reasoning, and sensibility that We observe in Them. Over the centuries, both words have become more negative in their associations, to the point that now, it seem that if you're not human, you're not only other, you're - beastly.

Creature gives us another view into this phenomenon. Applied to animals and crawly things, it's more or less neutral. But applied to humans, the meaning is unfailingly disparaging: if you zoom in on the node that connects creature with puppet and tool, you'll see that none of them is too far removed from slave, and the encompassing definition of all these words is "a person who is controlled by others and is used to perform unpleasant or dishonest tasks for someone else." Hmm. Is this all about control and domination? We'll return to that idea in a minute.

A Lot of Bull

The general human approach seems to be this: find a characteristic of the animal in question, reduce it to a stereotype or caricature, and then use it to disparage your fellows. Not surprisingly, it is the animals most closely associated with humans that have racked up the reekingest associations over the centuries. In English, at any rate, we don't have any ways of casting aspersions based on the attributes of gnus or duck-billed platypi. But step out into the barnyard and a whole palette of off-colors rises up before you: there's goat (butt, laughingstock, stooge), bovine (dull), chicken (yellow-bellied, lily-livered, etc.), and who can overlook pig (slob, squealer . . . the list goes on).

A children's story of the 1920s, later popularized in a musical, told the story of Dr. Doolittle, a man with the ability to talk to the animals. The songs from the musical paint a charming picture of how delightful the activity of conferring with our furry friends might be, but it fails to take account of the degree to which the animals might very well find our characterizations of them a bit wanting. While chatting to a chimp in Chimpanzee, for example, we would probably want to avoid verbs like monkey around and steer clear of ape as well. In talking to a tiger (or chatting to a cheetah), you would to well to avoid the use of catty. How would man's best friend take to the revelation of dogged as a species of "stubbornly unyielding"? And is it really quite fair that bitch has gone from its original designation (circa the year 1000) of a female dog to a whole panoply of negative associations that shouldn't even be used in polite company? This seems as unfair as associating wolf with skirt-chaser. The truth is, if we could talk to the animals, the first thing that would have to happen is a massive political correctness campaign in language that would make the current one seem like child's play!

Fairest of them All?

Should any doubts remain in your mind about the relentlessness of linguistic prejudice in favor of its inventors, note that in general we reserve the finer associations in language with ourselves. Have a look at manly: everyone likes virile, don't they? And even though a number of animals, technically, fill the virility bill rather more robustly than Joe Six-pack does - at least in its meanings of "characterized by energy and vigor" and "able to copulate" - it seems that the linguistic associations of the word are all reserved for homo sapiens. And as for womanly: it draws us into feminine, which in turn leads us to all sorts of parlor-room delights like maidenly, powder-puff, and fair.

What's the point of this pattern? There are many ways to approach the notion of anthropocentrism in language, and scholars of all stripes, some with rather cumbersome axes to grind, find pickings aplenty. One view with many adherents is the notion that linguistic anthropocentrism is only part of the larger phenomenon of humans viewing themselves as separate from nature - often to the great detriment of what we designate as "nature." Some put a different spin on this argument by touting the human-centeredness of language as proof of our unique place in nature, and even go so far as to use anthropocentrism to buttress arguments for our connection to God and divinity. On a much simpler level, it's possible to view our linguistic reduction of creaturehood as part of another pattern in language: the tendency for us to have a disparaging name for everything that does not refer to ourselves! Witness the many derogatory terms in English that exist for characterizing people of other nationalities.

You can explore thinking about linguistic anthropocentrism of various depths in numerous essays and papers on the Internet. We found these that present a range of views:

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday July 28th 2006, 3:35 PM
Comment by: Tiktaalik
Native Americans viewed themselves as being integral with nature. I wonder if they had as many disparing words for fellow animals?

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.