In which we blog about the marvellous intricacies of writing and editing.

home               blog               team               work               contact

Saturday, 9 August 2014

'Pet' versus 'Companion Animal'

I have a pet, and his name is Mitchell. Mitchell almost certainly doesn’t know that he belongs to a class of beings commonly referred to as ‘pets’, having his own cat business to take care of and his own cat language with which to communicate (and if he’s shown limited promise as an English speaker, I’m sure I’ve shown about as much promise as a Cat speaker). He is even less likely to be aware of the term ‘companion animal’, an alternative to ‘pet’ that has been in use for at least the last few decades. The question implicitly raised by the existence of the latter term is, obviously, does Mitchell have a reason to prefer not to be referred to as a pet? Or, since he is pretty unmoved by such questions, do we (if we care about and respect animals) have a reason not to use the term ‘pet’ and to prefer ‘companion animal’?

Some people think that we do have a good reason. I first came across the term, I think, when some UK newspapers reported that animal ethicists writing in the Journal of Animal Ethics, published by the University of Illinois Press and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics in the UK, had argued that we should dispense with the term ‘pet’ and instead use the less derogatory or more respectful term ‘companion animal’. Here’s the Daily Mail  (the writer is listed as ‘Daily Mail  reporter’):

Animals should not be described as ‘vermin’, ‘pests’ or even ‘pets’, animal ethicists have decided. […] They say words like ‘pests’ and ‘vermin’ should be dropped altogether, and ‘pets’ replaced by ‘companion animals’. […] 
The call for a new ‘animal language’ has been made by the editors of a new academic journal, the Journal of Animal Ethics […] They said: “Despite its prevalence, ‘pets” is surely a derogatory term both of the animals concerned and their human carers.” […] 
“Our existing language about animals is the language of past thought – and the crucial point is that the past is littered with derogatory terminology […] We shall not be able to think clearly unless we discipline ourselves to use less than partial adjectives in our exploration of animals and our moral relations with them.”

(Notably, perhaps, it was not the Daily Mail article but the Guardian article that featured the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’, though the piece is written in the ironic-infuriating tone that is the trademark of the ‘Passnotes’ column; see here.)

The article obviously raises some recurrent and hard-to-settle philosophical issues about language and ethics that I will leave aside here because I am writing as a copy-editor and this is a blog on writing and editing. So: say you are an editor or writer of some kind, and you’re keen to stay up to date with current usage issues, especially if they concern ‘disrespectful’ or ‘derogatory’ language. What should you know about the term ‘companion animal’ that will help you judge how it should be used?

First: definitions. Not all dictionaries list the term, but of those that do, almost all define it as ‘pet’ or something very close to ‘pet’. Oxford Dictionaries has “a pet or other domestic animal”, for example; Collins goes for “an animal kept as a pet”. Macmillan’s more detailed definition is “an animal that someone keeps for company and enjoyment. The more usual word is ‘pet.’” There also seems to be a definition that emphasises health benefits: “a dog, cat, or other pet that provides health benefits to a person. Companion animals may help relieve stress or serve a more active role, as do guide dogs for blind persons and dogs trained to detect telephone or doorbell sounds for deaf persons or seizures in epileptic persons and signal for help” (Mosby’s Medical Dictionary). This is a more specialist usage most likely confined to medical contexts, but it’s probably worth remembering it exists, in case an author intends to make a distinction between such animals and animals that simply live with humans in their homes.

Next: usage patterns. ‘Companion animal’ appears to feature most often in scientific texts, particularly in veterinary medicine. But it’s been used increasingly frequently for the past thirty years or so, at least according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, and it seems to be making inroads into more mainstream culture. There’s a Companion Animal Clinic in Roseburg, Oregon, for example, and in the UK there’s a ‘companion animals team’ that works with the RSPCA. So you can expect to find it in commercial and charity animal-care contexts and the like, and you can expect readers in these contexts not to be thrown by it.

What if you’re a more politically restless writer who wants to ensure that the ‘animal language’ you use is not just ‘the language of past thought’ but reflects a respectful attitude towards animals? Should you do away with ‘pet’ altogether and use only ‘companion animal’? Here I think the philosopher Peter Singer has a good answer – although he is actually discussing the terms ‘animal’ and ‘nonhuman animal’, which in many ways mirror ‘pet’ and ‘companion animal’. This is from the preface to Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975), the first book I read on the ethics of animal rights and animal welfare:

Since there exists no other short term for the nonhuman animals, I have, in the title of this book and elsewhere, had to use ‘animal’ as if it did not include the human animal. This is a regrettable lapse from the standards of revolutionary purity but it seems necessary for effective communication. Occasionally, however, to remind you that this is a matter of convenience only, I shall use longer, more accurate modes of referring to what was once called ‘the brute creation.’

This kind of ‘middle way’ seems worth considering here too, given that ‘companion animal’ is more cumbersome a term than ‘pet’ and that not all readers will know what the longer term means. Maybe someday a shorter term will come along that catches on, though, and using the term ‘pet’ will come to seem to many like, say, using the term ‘little lady’ to refer to a woman in her twenties. As with many things, we can’t know yet, but one day we might – it’s what makes the future so exciting.

No comments: