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Vegetarianism and veganism could inspire shifts in how we use language

Tim Nelson
December 04, 2018

The English language is littered with the corpses of colloquialisms that have gone out of vogue. For example, it’s probably been a long time since you (unironically) referred to the internet as the “information superhighway” or spoke of “surfing the web."

But the recent work of one English Literature PhD in the UK suggests that shifting diet patterns might render a relatively common utterance obsolete in the near future. In a recent article for The Conversation, Swansea University postdoc researcher Shareena Z. Hamzah traces the use of meat in literature and language over time, ultimately arriving at a thought-provoking conclusion: As more of us move away from eating meat, the less likely we are to trot out turns of phrase like “bringing home the bacon.”

“The growth of vegetarianism and veganism threatens to dethrone meat from its position at the top of the food hierarchy. Given that fiction often reflects on real world events and societal issues, it may very well be that down the line powerful meat metaphors are eschewed,” her essay reads.

In essence, as we become more aware of the environmental and ethical impact of meat consumption, the metaphors we use could evolve in turn to better reflect our changing relationship with animals. That could happen by modifying an action, like “feeding two birds with one scone” instead of killing them with a stone. In other cases, language could accommodate veganism by cutting out meat entirely when it isn’t needed to make a point, hence why breadwinners might be known for “bringing home the bagels."

As you’d expect, PETA is already on board with the idea of making our shared idioms friendlier to the animals who can’t speak up for themselves. They’ve prepared their own guide for replacing old animal-based phrases with kinder, gentler ones like “feeding a fed horse." Given that their efforts are aimed at educators of young children, it’s possible that these new vegan linguistic flourishes could take root by adapting new ways of thinking before the old ones become ingrained.

For her part, Hamzah doesn’t believe change will happen overnight, or even at all. “It can take language a long time to change,” she writes. “And who is to say that even those who choose a vegan or vegetarian diet even want to do away with the meaty descriptions?”

So don’t jettison your preferred meaty phrases just yet—but don’t be shocked if someone suggests you bring home something else next time you offer bacon.

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