The animal rights group has called on people to stop using expressions such as 'beat a dead horse' and 'take the bull by the horns'. But is there any sense in all this?
Seriously, Peta, stop feeding this fed horse
When you woke up this morning and began scrolling through Twitter, you might have seen a tweet from the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, better known as Peta. The tweet, which has already been shared many thousands of times, calls on us “to remove speciesism from [our] daily conversations”. (Is “speciesism” actually a word? Why am I not seeing a squiggly red line underneath it?)
So rather than saying, “kill two birds with one stone”, Peta suggests we “feed two birds with one scone”. It gets better. Remove “be the guinea pig” from your lexicon, Peta demands, and replace it with “be the test tube”. And best of all, you should no longer “take the bull by the horns”, when you can instead “take the flower by the thorns”.
The first thing to acknowledge here is that this is an extraordinarily brilliant PR stunt by Peta. The tweet has been tailored to provoke maximum outrage: “As our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it”. And you can be sure that by the end of the day, every angry white man with a newspaper column will have had his say. Quick, someone get Brendan O’Neill on the case.
Peta is acting like a farmer with a cattle prod, whipping us up into a froth, all the while ensuring that its name – and the causes it really cares about – are getting plenty of oxygen. So there we go, kudos for that.
However, for all its success as a PR exercise, this tweet is absurd. Wilfully, almost impressively absurd. Before we get on to the moralising bit, let’s first look at whether these suggestions make any sense (spoiler alert: they don’t).
Here’s one example: Peta thinks “beat a dead horse” should be replaced by “feed a fed horse” (the expression is “flog a dead horse”, anyway, isn’t it?). The reason why beating a dead horse is pointless is because – and forgive me if this sounds obvious – the horse won’t move. Because it’s dead. But here’s the thing with horses: they will continue to eat even after they’ve been fed.
So while it might be strange – and quite expensive – to feed a fed horse, the phrase wouldn't exactly signify a pointless exercise because the horse would likely keep on eating. It would certainly be a lot less pointless than beating/flogging a dead horse.
The other one, which I find more than a touch confusing, is “feed two birds with one scone”. Aside from the fact that, as a colleague pointed out, the poor birds only get half a scone each, it turns out that scones would be extremely bad for a bird. As a website called The Spruce explains in an article, quite terrifyingly titled “WORST FOOD FOR BIRDS”: “Sweet baked goods […] do not offer good nutrition and are packed with processed ingredients and additives that are not suitable for birds."
Time for the moralising bit. In a second tweet, Peta attempted to justify these suggestions. “Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language,” the tweet reads, “phrases that trivialise cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start ‘bringing home the bagels’ instead of the bacon.”
Language does develop and often this is a very good thing. Racist, homophobic or ableist words, which were once deemed acceptable, no longer are. Peta’s mistake, which is unwittingly highly offensive, is to conflate the impact of racist, homophobic or ableist language with so-called “speciesism”. The two things are not comparable. Racist or homophobic words normalise racism and homophobia. The phrase “kill two birds with one stone” has not, as far as I know, inspired an army of people to head for the woods with a fistful of pebbles.
Expressions such as “grab the bull by the horns” or “be the guinea pig” evolved through human endeavour and experience. Whether or not you think that testing on guinea pigs is acceptable or not is a moot point here. The phrase was not created as a term of abuse. It was not employed as a way for humans to demonise guinea pigs.
The specific purpose of racist, homophobic and ableist language, on the other hand, is to marginalise and vilify. It’s a glaring and very important distinction to make. We need to look at the origins of these expressions and the intent with which they were and are being used before deciding whether or not they belong in our language.
Seriously, Peta, it’s time to stop feeding this fed horse.