Cleaning up cruel phrases

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It is hard to make up a new word. To successfully rewrite an established idiom is impossible.  It is astonishing what people think they can do to bend the language to their will.

 Researchers in the UK have proposed a revision of the many phrases in the English language which demonstrate cruelty to animals. They argue that if we have cleaned up our language in relation to sexism and racism, there is no reason why we shouldn’t take this extra step and ban anything that reflects a negative attitude to animals, on the grounds that the words we use influence our behaviour. Some phrases can seem harmless but they nevertheless send a message that cruelty to animals is ok.

 Their first example was the phrase to kill two birds with one stone. They suggest that the simplest solution was to alter this to a kinder variation which still captures the idea – to feed two birds with one scone.  It was quickly pointed out by an Australian radio listener that feeding birds with scones was not an activity to be encouraged as the flour would very likely kill them.

If we set that one aside as an Oops! instance, we can turn to their next example flogging a dead horse.  So much better to say feeding a fed horse.  That captures the pointlessness of the activity but loses the sense that you actually want to get a result. You want the horse to go. Bringing home the bacon could be replaced by bringing home the bagels, but not all of us like bagels or regard them as an essential item in the kitchen.

 The point is that all these phrases have been forged out of real experience.  The made-up replacements lack authenticity, and so lack conviction. Collecting the eggs was something that many people did, and so the phrase putting all your eggs in one basket was a common reference point for a lot of people. That gave the expression its vigour.  The made-up replacement, putting all your berries in one bowl, has no anchor in real life.  Collecting berries was not nearly as important as collecting eggs, and, if you dropped the bowl, the results were not nearly as disastrous.  


Sue ButlerComment