Derogatory Definitions, Speciesist Slurs—Dictionaries Should Nix Them All

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3 min read

The words we use have the power to create a more inclusive world or to perpetuate oppression, so PETA is asking everyone to think before they speak—or type. Respected resources like Merriam-Webster,, The American Heritage Dictionary, Collins English Dictionary, Oxford English Dictionary, and are in a prime position to help move us closer to a more respectful, empathetic world, with a more compassionate view of other species. This is why we’re urging such resources to remove harmful definitions, like Merriam-Webster’s pig (“a dirty, gluttonous, or repulsive person”), snake (“a worthless or treacherous fellow”), and dog (“a worthless or contemptible person”), pointing out that lending credence to such inaccurate descriptions fuels speciesism, a human-supremacist attitude that slights, insults, and denigrates other animals.

When we tweeted about removing speciesist slurs from our vocabulary, the Internet went berserk. Our tweet about standing up for justice by rejecting supremacist language …

… quickly became a top trending topic on Twitter, and it’s no wonder why: Anti-speciesism is having its moment. More and more people understand that bullying and violence aren’t limited to humans any more than they’re limited to certain races or one gender identity. People are realizing just how much words matter, and while dictionaries are in a unique position to combat speciesism, everyone can reject mischaracterizations of animals and reflect upon their talents, communication abilities, social skills, and more. In her letter to Merriam-Webster, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk points out the following:

Calling humans various animal names is meant to sting, yet pigs, for instance, are intelligent, lead complex social lives, and show empathy for other pigs in distress. They have rescued drowning humans and alerted their guardians to fires. Snakes are clever, have family relationships, and prefer to associate with their relatives rather than with strangers. If taken many miles away, they can find their way back home even if it takes two years. Dogs have personalities as varied and distinct as those of the humans who care for them. A dog living in a human home has been shown to understand, on average, some 400 words of human language simply from paying close attention.

The least we can do is ensure that our language never normalizes violence against animals. Saying, “as loyal as a goose,” “as protective as a pigeon,” “as flexible as an octopus,” and “as clever as a mouse,” would be apt and accurate. Using “as playful as a pig” makes sense—using “pig” to describe “a dirty, gluttonous, or repulsive person” does not. (Looking at you, Merriam-Webster.)

Language should progress, just as our ever-evolving culture does.

We certainly hope that these dictionaries take our request to remove these harmful definitions seriously, thereby encouraging people to recognize that attributing ill character to thinking, feeling animals who experience joy, suffering, love, and grief, just as humans do, is unacceptable. But don’t wait for someone else to do the right thing—discover how you can join PETA and countless others in dismantling speciesism today, and encourage your friends and family to do the same:

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