Putting Language on a Meat-Free Diet

Carnivorous expressions serve to exclude, not include.

Through wood slats of a fence pokes a pink snout of a black and white pig.

By Steve Bien-Aimé • March 7, 2017


The battles for inclusive language often occur surrounding issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Seeking inclusivity in more spaces improves societies; how can making all people feel welcome be a bad thing? With this noble goal in mind, I’d like to further the discussion of linguistic inclusivity in terms of food.

It’s good that restaurants broaden their selections to account for folks with various dietary needs, so isn’t it time for food-related language to accommodate as many folks as possible? At this point, some of you might be asking: Steve, what do you mean?

It makes little sense to alienate 16 million people without good reason.

A preference for meat-based expression runs throughout the English language. For instance in 2015, a Dallas Cowboys running back criticized a former teammate by saying “there was a lot of meat left on the bone” in regard to the numerous missed opportunities attributed to his ex-colleague.

This expression makes sense to an overwhelming number of Americans as a supermajority of people here are meat eaters.

But millions would prefer if all the meat were left on the bone. According to a 2012 Gallup survey, 5 percent of people in the United States identify as vegetarian. That number sounds small until we recognize that there are about 323 million people living in the United States, according to a 2016 U.S. Census estimate. Thus, there are roughly 16.1 million vegetarians.

It makes little sense to alienate 16 million people without good reason. The best communicators seek to widen their audiences, not narrow them. Precise language use can prevent transgressions and make meanings as clear as possible.

Some inclusive-language critics dismiss expressions as just that—harmless expressions. But intended or not, harm is still harm.

Imagine having a discussion with someone who is vegetarian or vegan for ethical or religious reasons, and you nonchalantly utter an expression like beating a dead horse. They don’t necessarily want to engage in a conversation where someone has flagrantly, yet casually, violated one of their sincerely held beliefs.

Even among meat eaters, we must be vigilant with our food-based terminology. There are some common phrases that contain pork; however, millions of Americans do not eat pork, such as many followers of Islam and Judaism.

Some inclusive-language critics dismiss expressions as just that—harmless expressions. But intended or not, harm is still harm.

Consider the popular phrase bringing home the bacon, which simply refers to earning a wage and taking the proceeds back to your family. Bringing home the bacon has endured despite the fact that most people today do not work in agriculture. A July/August 2016 Atlantic article contains the following passage: “For most of American history, a principal goal of any member of Congress was to bring home bacon for his district. Pork-barrel spending never really cost very much, and it helped glue Congress together by giving members a kind of currency to trade: You support my pork, and I’ll support yours.”

Indeed, pork-related expressions play large roles in politics. The term pork barrel has existed since 1909 and refers to politicians bringing government money to their constituents, according to Merriam-Webster.

A November 2016 Washington Post column on government spending uses the sentence, “A proposal was offered to bring back earmarks—the pork-barrel spending added to bills that allow individual members a little goody here or there for their district.” Additionally, a bunch of pigs in what’s presumably a hog pen served as the column’s cover photo.

The wording and the photo selection illustrate who is and who is not in power as all language is political in nature, according to linguistic and cultural scholars. These pork usages reflect the influential positions Christian people hold in U.S. society. Take Congress: According to Pew, 91 percent of congressional members are Christian, down slightly from the 95 percent in 1961–62. If we lived in a country that contained a Muslim or Jewish majority citizenry, I doubt we’d see pork-barrel politics or bringing home the bacon. It wouldn’t make sense.

Common language usages should not trample over others who are different.

I don’t think that people who are using terms such as bringing home the bacon or pork-barrel politics have animosity toward Jewish or Muslim people. I also don’t think they object to Jewish or Muslim people earning a living or serving in politics. Correspondingly, I don’t believe that people who use meat terminology hate vegetarians or are consciously trying to make vegetarians uncomfortable.

That said, common language usages should not trample over others who are different, despite most Americans identifying as Christian and even more identifying as meat eaters.

It is through being more mindful that our word choices do matter, even when we’re not overtly discussing race, gender, sexuality, disability, or religion.

Cultures often use food to unify people, but if we’re careless, we might push people away with our verbal food choices.

Steve is smiling in a sky-blue button-down shirt.Steve Bien-Aimé is an assistant professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University. Before receiving his doctorate from Penn State’s College of Communications, Steve worked as a copy editor at The News Journal in Delaware and The Baltimore Sun and served in a variety of functions at FOXSports.com, departing as deputy NFL editor. His research interests include race and gender portrayals in news and sports media.

White type on sky-blue background.


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