Language is a powerful tool, and we use it to whitewash dirty realities. We‘d rather call a military attack a „surgical strike“ than choose a term more appropriate for the messy, bloody, unpredictable mayhem that is war. „Irreconcilable differences“ is a flattering phrase for the real-life disappointment and late-night fights of two people who used to love each other. Euphemisms step in whenever reality is too brutal for us to concede. It‘s no surprise that the exploitation and consumption of animals has created its fair share of them.
The English language tries hard to cover up that we‘re eating animals. We don‘t eat pigs, the animals, but pork, the food. Not cows but cattle, not individual birds but broiler or poultry. Beef is harvested, not murdered.
That‘s English. Oddly enough, German is quite explicit about animal foods. A restaurant across the street from my apartment bluntly advertises „Pig in its own juice.“ Other German dishes like „cow stomach“ have equally straightforward names.
Sure, I cringe every time I walk past the „Pig in its own Juice“ billboard, but isn‘t it ultimately more harmful to hide the nasty details behind animal foods through deceitful language? How many children would eat their „lunch meat“ if it didn‘t come neatly pressed into a perfectly round, perfectly pink circle, but looked like a pig and was labelled „pig“? How many adults, for that matter, would lose their appetite if their favorite animal foods came with the appearance and name of, well, a dead animal?
Of course this is just a thought experiment. Some animal foods will probably always be labelled and packaged to disguise their origins, while others deliberately call it like it is, perhaps hoping to tap male consumers‘ „basic instincts“ or challenge their culinary masculinity.
Which version of animal consumption should vegans be more suspicious of, that is, which is less likely to eventually lead consumers to stop eating animals altogether? I think both are dangerous in different ways. On the one hand, euphemisms allow consumers who feel guilty about eating animals to forget that they‘re eating animals. On the other hand, explicitly labelled animal foods may desensitize „tough“ consumers who find it normal or even amusing to eat stomachs, testicles, and thighs.
Still, I prefer the explicit language. Most people are naturally squeamish. From surveys and personal experience we know that many people intellectually and emotionally oppose animal suffering, that they feel guilty about eating animals, and get defensive when asked about it. Pleasant, disguising names are the sedative their conscience wants. Explicit names could be the truth serum it needs.