VEGA News Item

Pig Ignorance and Battered Bovine Bravery - 20/11/2006
Purifying language of unedifying metaphors and similes has long exercised welfarists of various persuasions, but the offending statements have achieved a sustainability that surpasses all the efforts of innovators to devise replacements.
1. Purifying language of unedifying metaphors and similes has long exercised welfarists of various persuasions, but the offending statements have achieved a sustainability that surpasses all the efforts of innovators to devise replacements. Not surprising, when the culprits lie embedded and entrenched in nursery rimes and in common sayings uttered with scanty support, on evidence-based and scientific principles so revered in modern practice; and some may ring unfortunately true. Lambs still go to slaughter, many callow and innocent of their fate; there’s no doubt too that many butchers’ dogs are models of canine fitness superior to so many pets and companion animals.

2. Many veggies who profess animal (ie non-human) welfare sentiments flinch at killing two birds with one stone: paying two bills with one loan would seem to be a worthier deal. Bernard Shaw, a doughty veggie campaigner, left a legacy for the reform of English spelling, which is still a good idea but not as pressing an enterprise as directing his wit to apt and benign figures of speech. Kind words butter no parsnips for the true veggie, for whom a fine kettle of fish is a cauldron of cruelty.

3. Dogs look up to you, cats look down to you, pigs look you straight in the eye, runs a saying. Pigs have come up in the human world although the connotations of friendliness and fun still clash with swinish pejoratives. Cats are becoming favored pets, displacing dogs as pets in the urban environment where convenience and independence dominate. The pet food trade is a major growth market for the meat industry: cat food is advertised as if moggy could share it with her human keeper. Designer dog foods illustrate plenty of NPD – new product development, which has generated a new diet on which the dog discreetly thrives even to the point of passing the compliment of pickupable poo.

4. Then there are the “animal” words that mislead and unfairly stereotype some. The school captain’s hand that upheld the stoicism of the boy soldier when all about him was collapsing and finally his own gun jammed evokes masculine virtues that actually contradict the evidence of the benefit of the resistance of the XX female over the less endowed XY male, the Y-chromosome being inferior in some respects to the X version. In fact, it is cows and ewes who demonstrate stoicism in suffering. Farmers may well post warnings to ramblers of the bull’s presence, knowing that the animals grazing in the field to watch are the sentinel cows guarding the calves of the herd. The sheep’s purpose in life is finding ways to die is the callous farmer’s verdict on what is likely to be stoically disguised suffering – as part of an innate defensive mechanism – of assaults inflicted in the course of inconsiderate husbandry and keeping that bears no resemblance to the conditions described in Psalm 23 and derived hymns.

5. A curious gap in common English usage denies us a singular of the collective noun cattle. Sheep can be described as such in large numbers, among which a single sheep may be denoted. It is true that farmers do describe a cattle in a sale, for instance, but the tendency to use the word cow to describe cattle singly or collectively, whether they are male, female, calves, heifers, bulls, bullocks, steers, or stirks. Cats can be included similarly in generic descriptions for kittens, queens, and toms and the corresponding neutered forms. The females of these species have earned some pejorative words in the English language, although the fierce demonstrations of their maternal instincts attracts little respect. Co-evolution of humans and the domestic and farm animals has produced great numbers of docile neuters among the livelier populations of entires powered by full-strength hormonal surges and selfish genes.

6. The pet food trade and vets’ practices – which, unlike most GPs’, enjoy less discipline and restraint, as private enterprises, rather than as parts of a national health service – are generating many commercial ventures in the booming market for pets and tame birds. The aisles of modern supermarkets give some idea. Not just food, but decorations, clothing, furniture, and toys are all part of the business – and not to say kosher foods and gifts for what may still be counted in a highly commercial world as religious festivals such as Christmas, Chanuka, and Diwali. The non-human animals – no fools they – seem to play along with these eccentricities, although we have to admit that inwardly they would relish gnawing on a real bone, playing with a mouse, or chasing the hungry birds seeking food, water, and shelter in the garden outside. The veterinary profession is withdrawing from its complicity in dubious elective (by owners and keepers) mutilations (such as tail docking – a matter of much concern in the passage of the Animal Welfare Bill); might some practitioners therefore offer their services and pocket their fees for circumcisions for nonhuman animals of various ‘faiths’? It would seem sacrilege beyond mutilation to tamper with the stallion’s splendidly telescopic organ.

7. The table below illustrates some of the confusing bovine, canine, and feline expressions and their rare equivalences in translation into current languages in northern Europe. Over 30 words can apply to sheep at various ages and for different purposes.

cow (the animal) n.kuv, kyr (L. bos, Gk. Bous) Kuhko
cow (intimidate) v.ON kuge (to oppress) einschüchternkuva
coward n.OF, ME cuard, couard L. cauda (tail)Feilingynkrygg, fegis
cowcatcher n. Schienenräumer 
cower v. (nieder)kauern 
cowage n.Hindi kawanch (itch bean) kliböna
bull n.ON boli, MD bulleBulle, Haussiertjur
bully n.MD boele (lover)Renommist, Tyrann, Zuhältermobbare

n=noun; v=verb

MD=Middle Dutch; ME=Middle English; OF=Old French; ON=Old Norse

8. Dog is a word with several animal allusions in the English language that are not carried through in German and Scandinavian vocabularies. In the reducing sense of dog Latin (German, Küchenlatein), dog collar, dogwatch (Swedish, plattvakt), Dog star (Sirius), dogfish etc, few doggy words come through in other languages. Dogged in two pronunciations in English comes out in other languages with similar separate meanings, eg hartnäckig, störrisch, mürrisch in German and envis, sammanbiten and hårdnackad in Swedish, with no obvious canine connexion, unlike, say, dogtired and dogrose (Danish, hunde-rose, but German, Heckenrose, ie hedgerose, and Swedish, stenrose, ie rockrose). Bulldog is a composite word, almost certainly derived from applications of dogs in the bullring to worry and weaken bulls prior to slaughter (a consequence arising from dark cutting practices in later butchery to avoid the risk of DFD – dark, dry, firm – beef). Dog-in-the-manger is apparently a colourful metaphor peculiar to English: it translate prosaically in German to neidhammel). Examples abound of animal associations with plants, eg cow and sheep’s parsley and ox-eye daisy.

9. Cat is a word implying tying, making fast, as in catting (kitten in German) an anchor and catgut, never made from cats’ gut, but from sheep, horses, asses, or cattle (German, Darmsaite; Swedish, tarmsträng – a string of intestine).

10. And the expressions can be compared for more and more species. But we hope we have freed the cow from any taint of oppression or cowardice. She is better remembered in expressions such as calf love.

11. The variations and reversals in the word bully are noteworthy. Bully beef refers to the method of preparation. Humble pie is another anatomical expression: it refers to the umbles (hence umbilicus) for the entrails, with an h inserted for false superiority and a nice aptness of meaning, for the expensive cuts of beef and other animals, eg sirloin, carry French-style names of nobility, whereas the offals (the pluck etc) from the ox are a lexicon of Anglo-Saxon and earlier words disappearing from what is being regarded as offensive butchery usage.

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