A Lexical Excursion

by eatpulses

In school, English was always one of my best subjects. (A tip of the hat to two of my teachers: Tom Clayton at Los Angeles Valley College, and Dr. Jane Walpole at Piedmont Virginia Community College.) I’ve had a longstanding interest in the English language, so it’s only natural that I take up some lexical matters here. (If you share my interest, you’ll enjoy the Lexicon Valley podcasts. I also like onelook.com, where you can look up a word in many dictionaries.) This is a perhaps a logical place to mention that it’s fine with me if you use what I’ve written, even beyond the bounds of fair use, provided you link to this website or credit ahimsatoday.com.

One language note about how I write: Understandably, many people object to using male pronouns universally to deal with the unfortunate lack of gender-neutral pronouns in English. It’s become increasingly common over the years, I’ve noticed, and now quite acceptable in informal spoken English, and increasingly even in informal written English, to use the non-gender-specific plural pronouns they and their for the singular pronouns he/she and his/her to avoid assigning gender or using the awkward “his or her”: Every student must bring their notebook. I’m of the old school, and not quite comfortable with pluralizing singulars, so I avoid this construction. Where gender is unknown or irrelevant, I’m inclined to use either gender randomly—but not switching in the same sentence, and probably not even in the same paragraph. (When I was in her classes many years ago, Dr. Walpole favored the masculine pronouns as the solution to the gender-neutral dilemma, noting that men had to share theirs because they were used when the gender wasn’t specified, but women were able to reserve the feminine pronouns for their exclusive use.) I can usually structure my sentences to avoid the whole problem: All students must bring their notebooks.

Since this blog is about ahimsa, let’s look at forms of the word that are much less widely used. We use –an, a suffix borrowed from Latin (similarly, -ean or –ian), to denote the following:

A person coming from a place: American, urban

A member or supporter of a group: Republican, Rotarian

An adherent: Christian, Randian

A contemporary: Elizabethan, antediluvian

A proponent: Marxian, Freudian

So a person who holds ahimsa as a core value and practices it would be an ahimsan, and what such a person does could also be described as ahimsan: He took the bug outside in an ahimsan effort to save its life.

We also use the suffix –ic to turn the nominal forms of words into adjectival forms: scenic, moronic, iconic; hence we have ahimsic, which musters a meager 2,390 Google hits. Ahimsan has four times that many hits, but perhaps fewer than ahimsic with a lower-case a; I discovered that Ahimsan is a popular boy’s name—chosen for the same meaning, of course, but nonetheless, I don’t think we should include a proper noun in our count. The point of all this is that I find both ahimsan and ahimsic to be acceptable terms, and will use them.

With or without knowing the term ahimsa, people who care about animals suffering and/or dying will, as the most common means of softening their impact, adopt a vegetarian diet. Now, the word vegetarian is interesting in that it describes what one won’t eat, while other terms for diets describe what one will eat, as in fruitarian or raw foodist. If you don’t eat anything that requires killing an animal to obtain it, you’re a vegetarian—even if you never eat vegetables (and even if the animal is killed later for economic reasons). If you consume eggs or anything made from them, you become an ovo-vegetarian. If you consume dairy products, you’re a lacto-vegetarian. (Many (most?) people who call themselves lacto-vegetarians will eat cheese that has been made with rennet, an enzyme from the stomachs of dead calves, lambs, or goats, so they’re not really vegetarians.) If you consume both milk and eggs, you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian. If a vegetarian should accidentally ingest meat, she’s still a vegetarian. But if she intends to eat turkey once a year at a family Thanksgiving dinner, she isn’t. It’s about what your dietary practice is, what you intend to do and expect to do.

I’ll address in a subsequent post that, from my ahimsic perspective, quantity matters. Describing yourself as a vegetarian is problematic because there’s no reference to how many eggs or how much milk you consume. You could buy a yogurt once a month or you could eat dairy products at every meal, and you’re a lacto-vegetarian either way—but there’s an enormous difference in how much suffering and death you contribute to.

Some people use pescatarian to describe fish eaters, but others take the word to mean the same thing as the horrid pesco-vegetarian. I say strike these abominations from the language. Note that pescatarian is unlike fruitarian; fruitarians eat only or primarily fruit, but pescatarians don’t eat only or primarily fish—same construction, different meaning. They would more accurately be called pseudo-vegetarians or, less judgmentally, quasi-vegetarians.

There’s another quirk to using a word to describe what you don’t eat and then adding prefixes to nail down what broad categories of animal products you do eat. It’s assumed—and this is almost always a correct assumption—that vegetarians eat honey. (Perhaps you’ve met non-vegan vegetarians who won’t eat honey. I haven’t.) But if we want to differentiate vegetarians from dietary vegans (discussed below), we have to account for dairy, egg, and honey consumption. In any case, one could argue that from a linguistic perspective, it would be more consistent to also add honey to vegetarian in the form of a prefix, just as one does for dairy products and eggs. If we had such a prefix, honey would be clearly optional for vegetarians, as milk and eggs are. This approach would be of value not only because it would help us to differentiate vegetarians from vegans, but also because honey and other bee products present unique ethical issues that I’ll discuss another time, and a prefix would put honey in the spotlight.

Alas, no suitable prefix comes to mind. Honey is a noun. The adjectival forms, honeyed and honeying, are too long and sound awkward. You wouldn’t want to say, “I’m a honeyed-vegetarian.” To come up with a better term, let’s look at where honey comes from. Bees make and deliver honey by regurgitating flower nectar they have stored in their honey sac or honey stomach, which adds enzymes. This vessel isn’t the same as their food stomach, so strictly speaking, honey isn’t vomit. But it’s close enough to vomit that one honey company calls their product Bumble Barf.

If an insect eats it, chews it and spews it, you can bet we sell it. … We are the only honey packing plant that dares tell it like it is. … Honey is bug vomit. It may be sweet, but you’re not the first to eat it.

While it isn’t exactly vomit, contrary to the above, it is exactly regurgitation. As an interesting aside, vomiting and regurgitation in humans likewise aren’t the same thing. (The excerpt below is from an earlier iteration of the Merck Manual—Home Edition, and is no longer online where I found it.)

Vomiting is the forceful contraction of the stomach that propels its contents up the esophagus and out through the mouth. Vomiting serves to empty the stomach of its contents and often makes a person with nausea feel considerably better, at least temporarily. Vomiting is not the same as regurgitation, which is the spitting up of stomach contents without forceful abdominal contractions and nausea.

So to make vegetarian less ambeeguous (sorry), we could add regurgi-vegetarian to the list, but somehow I don’t think it will fly.

One often sees the term plant-based nowadays. Sometimes it’s used as a euphemism or code word for dietary vegan, a use I don’t care for. If you mean vegan, say vegan. A base is something you build on, a foundation. If you pour a concrete foundation for a building, that’s not the same as constructing a concrete building. So how much in the way of animal products can you eat and still say you’re eating a plant-based diet? Some websites say 90% plants. I found this handout on plant-based diets from the American Dietetic Association. It refers to the guidelines of the American Institute for Cancer Research:

 Plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans should cover two thirds or more of the plate. Fish, poultry, meat, or low-fat dairy foods should cover no more than one third of the plate.

The handout also says, Eating a plant-based diet does not mean that you have to become a vegetarian; it just means that you should try to select most of your foods from plant sources. But most means over 50%. So you could eat half plants plus one grain of rice, and you’re eating plant-based, according to them. Even one third seems way too much (easily more than half the calories on that plate could come from animal products). Also, they refer to plant foods as plant-based foods. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans, are all plants. Going back to our building analogy, would you call a concrete foundation a concrete-based foundation? Since the allowable percentage of animal foods varies so much from one plant-based diet to another, it would be a good idea for people who write about such diets to take pains to specify the maximum percentage of animal foods allowable in their version of plant-based.

Although nobody uses plant-based this way, taxonomically speaking, plant-based could be useful in describing vegan diets in that some vegan foods aren’t members of the plant kingdom: mushrooms are members of the fungus kingdom, and sea vegetables are algae, which don’t fit into a single kingdom.

To what kingdom(s) to seaweeds belong? Seaweeds are not a single taxonomic entity. Molecular phylogeny (gene sequencing) and other characters show they belong to three kingdoms: Kingdom Plantae (chlorophytes and rhodophytes), the Kingdom Chromista (phaeophytes), and the Kingdom Bacteria (cyanophytes).

So a vegan diet isn’t entirely a plant food diet unless you’re a vegan who never eats seaweed or mushrooms. (I’m not aware of other vegan foods that don’t belong in Kingdom Plantae.)

Plant foods include meat and dairy analogs that are processed foods, not whole foods that resemble their form as grown, so one sees the term whole-foods plant based (WFPB) to differentiate the plant-based eating styles that avoid processed foods.

Vegans don’t eat animal products. Some people eat honey and call themselves vegan, but the American Vegan Society will tell you that vegans don’t eat honey, and they should know. According to a 2009 survey, there are fewer vegans than there are people who would be vegan if they didn’t consume honey, so I think they deserve their own name: Beegans. Seriously.

People who don’t avoid non-food items of animal origin, but who eat a vegan diet, are dietary vegans, sometimes called total vegetarians. Those who also avoid animal ingredients in non-food products, such as body care and household cleaning products are called vegans, unmodified. It’s not part of the definition, but all the vegans I’ve known also avoid products tested on animals. I use the word avoid above because we live in an industrialized society, and we don’t even know what’s in most of the manufactured products we buy. If you’re reading this, it’s close to impossible for you to never be a consumer of animal products, unless you die right now. Still there? Good.

Online one finds debates about features of human anatomy and physiology that attempt to prove that our natural diet is carnivorous or herbivorous. I don’t want to get very far into that, except to say that I find those arguments unpersuasive on both sides. Having a particular anatomical or physiological feature proves what we can eat, not what we should eat. Based on what people do eat, we’re clearly omnivores, meaning that we can eat animal flesh and plants, but not proving that we should eat either. The term omnivore isn’t very useful, though, as pointed out in this paleoveganology post.

Let’s consider flexitarians. It’s a challenge for me to write about them because I’m trying to be kind and not judgmental, but, truth be told, I see them as spineless chameleons who don’t stand for anything. These are people who eat plant-based diets, but aren’t wedded to any food philosophy. For some folks, one important value is to not be associated with any ideology. (Were the concept not so one-dimensional, it could itself be an ideology.) The reason for my disdain is that flexitarians may have reasons for eating mainly plants, reasons reflecting human values, and it seems to me that they ought to take a stand for them. (Those who have no real reasons beyond personal preference or “I feel like eating that way” are in the same boat with everybody else who isn’t introspective about food choices, and merit no further discussion here.) I may be wrong about this, but I imagine that those with reasons eat more plants and fewer animal products when at home; it’s during social situations where they want to be, well, sociable, that they compromise the weak ideals that make them generally more inclined to eat plants. In my world—the world I want to change—this is 180 degrees backwards.

Meet Alexa the flexitarian, who believes that if we were more conciliatory, if we had less extremism and more moderation, we could get along better, and the world would be a more harmonious, peaceful place. Her motto is “Go along to get along.” She is flexible, adaptable, and accommodating. She is so open-minded that her brain might fall out.

Alexa eschews extremism. What she doesn’t realize is that our indirect actions, viewed objectively, are extreme. (They’re indirect because we pay others to do our dirty work.) It is extreme to raise animals in such tight confinement that they can’t turn around (veal calves). It is extreme to kill over nine billion chickens a year, and to do it without humanely stunning them first (both layers and broilers). It is extreme to indiscriminately kill so many fish that their numbers are in serious decline from overfishing. It is extreme to perform unnecessary surgeries on animals with no anesthetic (dehorning and castration). It is extreme to hatch chicks without their mothers and then kill half of them by suffocation in a plastic bag (roosters of laying breeds). It is extreme to persist in supporting these cruelties (preceding parenthetical topics on my list for future posts).

Suppose Alexa eats mostly plants because she cares about animals, and for her, that concern manifests itself in her selectivity in buying meat from animals that she believes to have been raised and slaughtered more humanely than those that come from factory farms. But then she’s invited to a barbeque where she indulges in meat from a factory farm. At home the choice is between plants and “humanely” raised and slaughtered animals (in quotes for reasons we’ll get to in another post). So it’s at home where she should be flexible, if she values flexibility highly, because she has more control over her choices. When she’s at the barbeque, instead of abandoning her weak preference to cause less suffering, she should strengthen that preference precisely because of her lack of control. The more humane choice, even if only marginally more humane, isn’t available, so she should hunker down and say, “When I’m not at home, I don’t eat _________,”or “When I’m not at home, I eat vegan.” She would make more ahimsic food choices, and would have the opportunity to suggest to others by her choices that there’s something wrong with American agribusiness. If other diners were to ask about why she eats this way, she could offer to discuss it later, so as not to create discord—or indigestion—during the meal. Or she could refer them here.

Alexa has a cousin I want to introduce you to: Ivy the invisitarian. I’m coining the word to describe a person who doesn’t eat part of a dead animal if she can see it. An invisitarian wouldn’t touch anything that looks like a muscle or an organ, but if the animal part is invisible, then the food is, uh, fair game, so to speak. Chicken legs are verboten, but if rice is cooked in chicken broth, no problem.  The usual reasons people might eat an ahimsic diet don’t motivate Ivy. To her, dead animal parts are yucky. Esthetics and how appetizing her food looks are what matter. Ivy isn’t interested in the consequences of her actions. Her food choices just protect her sensibilities from esthetic offence.

Whereas Alexa cares about how she appears to others, Ivy cares about how her food looks to her. To both, the visible is vital, but the invisible is immaterial. Intellectually, emotionally, and philosophically, they’re both swimming in the shallow end of the pool.

Since I’m talking about ideas and fictitious persons, I think this is an ahimsic discourse, despite my expression of negative feelings about people who are weakly interested in something that’s important to me. If I’m not critical of ideas and actions, what will I write about? Please tell me if you disagree—especially if you see yourself in the caricatures above.