“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” –– George Orwell, Animal Farm
Hmmm … seems Orwell was onto something.
I don’t know about you but as a veterinarian and pet health writer, I have this thing about pet-related words and all their quirks. Seems to me the English language has a way of being unfair to animals –– pets in particular.
Pet-themed terminology often strikes me as disparaging, disdainful and otherwise disrespectful to companion animals. Though I’m sure that few of you will agree with all of my vocabulary-based pet peeves, I felt I needed to get them off my chest –– for a little while, anyway (as I’m sure to read or hear them again in short order).
Here goes …
#1 “Fur-kids” or “Fur-babies”
Let’s face it; they’re animals. Which is to say, they’re NOT human. They are not our babies. I believe that humanizing them is not only disrespectful to their animal natures, treating them like little people sets up conditions whereby unreasonable expectations are set and behavior problems are likely to result.
#2 “Pet parent”
There’s no good word for what we are to one another. While I recognize that “owner” in no way captures the essence of our relationship to our pets, “pet parent” seems oddly patronizing and strangely inappropriate to me. “Owner” is, at least, legally correct (for better or worse). Moreover, this term, while imperfect, has been established long enough in our cultural lexicon to have acquired acceptably positive connotations.
Guardian” …? “Custodian”…? “Steward” …? Or how about a made-up term like “”powner” …? Here’s a whole column on this issue and please offer up a sub if you have any ideas.
This is a Spanish word but I raise it here because I work in Miami and I practice medicine in three languages: English (70%), Spanish (5%) and Spanglish (25%).
“Mascota" is the Spanish language equivalent to the word “pet.” It means what it sounds like it means: “mascot.” As in, “a person or thing that is supposed to bring good luck or that is used to symbolize a particular event or organization.” As in, those oversized plush animal creatures we associate with stiflingly hot costumes at sporting events. (Odd choice of words, right?)
Pets are not our personal representatives. They are not our charms. Objectifying them as such insults their dignity as sentient beings. Their worth should in no way be described –– in words, thoughts or deeds –– in terms of their attachment to humans.
#4 “Fido” and “Fluffy”
I’m not sure why, but I dislike these substitutes for the words dog and cat, respectively, almost as much as I do the term “fur-babies.” They seem to condescend to our creatures. I don’t know … that’s just my pet peeve I guess.
#5 “Mom” and “Dad”
I confess: I’ll sometimes use the term “Daddy” when I’m telling our dogs to mind my boyfriend, their male person. (Example: “Pay attention, now, Violet. Daddy says you should eat all your food this morning!”) Still, it never sounds quite right, even in that highly personal context.
Worse still, though, is the use of this term in a professional setting. Calling a veterinary client “Mom” or “Dad” seems overly familiar and potentially impolite when it comes to addressing a pet owner directly. Yet I hear it all the time in veterinary and pediatric settings. As in, “Are you ready to pay your bill today, ‘Mom’?” (For my part, I find it highly annoying when I’m addressed as “Mom” by my pediatrician’s assistants.)
#6 “Bad Dog” or “Bad Cat”
There’s a great sign in my neighborhood that crystallizes how I feel about this terminology: “Good dog bites bad people!”
In my estimation, dogs and cats don’t possess the cognition to be “bad” or “good.” By default, then, they’re all good. Which is why it irks me when I hear anyone refer to an animal as “bad” or “mean.”
In fact, in our hospital that kind of talk is flat-out disallowed. All it does is set up an adversarial mindset that can lead to rough handling. (As I like to say, “Low-stress handling starts with low-stress thinking.”)
Truth is, there are easy-going pets, there are scared pets and there’s everything in between. But there are no bad pets.
Need I explain why I dislike this word? I will anyway: This term may denote “darling” or “favorite” in traditional American parlance, but it also connotes subservience. Which is kind of wrong for a beloved companion, right?
And that, my readers, summarizes my trouble with pet-based English (and Spanish) vocabulary. Did I forget any?