The establishment, the mainstream news media and the unenlightened are taking the mickey out of PETA for trying to change the deeply ingrained human habit of using animals in sayings, phrases and words within a sporting context (and generally) which indirectly devalues animals and thereby facilitates animal abuse. Earlier, PETA wrote about all phrases incorporating animals which also are harmful to animal welfare. The sports context is a recent development. Using these phrases and sayings is a form of speciesism too.
Hundreds of years old
I totally agree with them. And the reactionary response from the establishment is unsurprising. The point that I would like to make is that a lot of these phrases are often throwbacks to hundreds of years ago. Times have changed. We live in a more enlightened, civilised era or are meant to.
But change is always very difficult. Any change is hard because people become entrenched in their ways.
But hundred years ago, animal welfare wasn’t anywhere near as advanced as it is today. Although a lot more work needs to be done. And that’s why some of these phrases come from a time when there was a lot more animal cruelty. They reflect that time when animal cruelty was acceptable to many because people didn’t see animals as sentient beings.
I remind myself of American veterinarians who in 1950s thought that cats didn’t feel pain when they partially amputated (mutilated) their paws. I’m referring to declawing. They didn’t even give them painkillers. That’s how backward things were and that’s quite recent.
Changing a culture by working backwards
PETA is right. You can change habits and cultures by working backwards. Normally a culture or attitude creates words and phrases. They are a reflection of a culture. But if you stop using the phrases you can work backwards and change the culture. And that is what I believe PETA is working on.
Some sports sayings incorporating animals
Here are some examples of the English words and phrases they want to see discontinued in English-speaking countries.
- ‘Catching a crab’. This refers to rowers picking up a crab on their oars. I’m told that PETA wrote to British Rowing asking coaches, commentators and rowers to replace the phrase “catching a crab” with a different one. PETA suggested “liberating a lobster”. I’m not sure I like that. Do we need a phrase that all for this sort of occurrence? Just dump the phrase completely.
- ‘Rabbit punch’. This is a term used in boxing which refers to an illegal punch to the back of the neck.
- ‘Worm burner’. This is a golfing term. I have played a lot of golf and never heard the term used.
- ‘Hot dog’. This is a tennis term referring to hitting the ball between the legs.
Eliza Allen, a PETA spokeswoman said, “Words matter, and sporting terms that normalise violence or mock the misery of animals, even unconsciously, should get a modern overhaul. Choosing more inclusive and respectful language in relation to our fellow living, feeling beings is the true sporting thing to do.”
Lee Monks of the Plain English Campaign said that the suggestions were “fatuous, facile pearl-clutching”. He didn’t like the idea!
There is a business term which is “dead cat bounce”. I find that particularly objectionable. It means a temporary recovery in share prices after a substantial fall because speculators bought shares in order to recover their positions.
Other general terms which undermine animal welfare as listed by PETA and which can be seen on their website include:
- Cry over spilled milk
- Packed in like sardines
- On a wild goose chase
- Ants in your pants
- Walk on egg shells
- Kill two birds with one stone
- Let the cat out of the bag
- Take the bull by the horns
- Be a guinea pig
- Hold your horses
- Open a can of worms
- Bring home the bacon
- Beat a dead horse
- More than one way to skin a cat
- Put all your eggs in one basket
I’m going to add some phase of my own regarding cats:
- There is no room to swing a cat
- Having kittens
- Cat in hell’s chance
- Cat house
- Raining cats and dogs
The phrase “let the cat out of the bag” is a good example of how archaic these sayings are and how they were created in times when animal welfare was very poor. This phrase, which means that a person has given away a secret, dates back to the 18th century. It referred to a market day trick.
Piglets were taken to market in a sack or bag to be sold. A fraudster would put a cat in the bag instead. A buyer wanted to see the supposed piglet but was told that it was too risky to open the bag as the animal might escape. If the cat struggled too much and they escaped the fraud was exposed. The bag was called a “poke”, a word used in another expression “never buy a pig in a poke”.
The phrase “it is raining cats and dogs” comes from several centuries ago at a time when there was poor drainage and the streets were narrow and dirty. Heavy rain drowned starving cats and dogs that were foraging in the streets. When people emerged after the downpour, they found the corpses of these animals. Some believed that they had fallen from the sky.
The phrase “having kittens” goes back to mediaeval times when people thought that cats were witch’s familiars. They believed that if a pregnant woman was suffering a lot of pain she was bewitched and had kittens clawing at the inside of her womb.
These examples regarding cats simply serve to emphasise what I mentioned at the beginning of the article namely that these phrases incorporating animals are throwbacks to a bygone age and they perpetuate a less than helpful relationship between people and animals. They undermine animal welfare.