What’s in a name? A lot

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Bill Hutchison/Animal Matters

We all know it’s true, but it’s something we rarely think about – words mean things, and the particular words we use affect the way we think. If we zoom in on those words and look at how they change over time, it can reveal the ways we’re making progress, as well as the places we still need to work on. The words we use when we talk about animals mean things to us, and even if animals don’t speak our language, words mean things to them, too.

There has been a notable trend in recent years in referring to the ways animals live alongside us. For many years, when people wrote about animal-living quarters, it was frequently in terms of “kenneling” or “caging” animals. Now, we see a turn toward using terms like “housing” instead of “caging.” Do these word changes really mean something? If we imagine that the march of time brings with it a march of progress, then perhaps these word changes do reflect a shift in attitudes toward animals. One of the ways we can examine these changes is by looking at how frequently certain phrases appear in print. Thanks to advances in the digital humanities, we can examine these phrases in more historical detail.

Starting in 1780 and continuing for about a century, “kenneling” was what one did to keep an animal. While the term has significantly decreased in popularity since then, it still remains in use. The notion of the “animal cage” starts showing up in earnest around 1900, and peaks in popularity around 1945. Right around the same time, the idea of “animal housing” shows up, and from the late 1950s onward increases in popularity, peaking in the 90s. The phrase “animal house” surges in popularity between 1920 and 1970, (dropping off considerably as a term for animals after the movie Animal House is released in 1978). The idea of “caging animals” appears sporadically between 1890 and 1950, when it begins to increase in use, peaking in the 1990s and then dropping off. Compare that to the phrase “housing animals,” which steadily increases in popularity from the early 1890s until it peaks in the mid-1980s. (It has seen a decline in use since then.)

We can see some of the same indicators when we look at individual species – “dog kennel,” which is heavily in use from about 1730 on, is suddenly eclipsed around 1930 by “dog house,” which begins to decrease in use around the early 1990s. References to the places cats live with humans show up relatively late – it is not until around the turn of the twentieth century that the term “cat house” appears, and even if we correct for the other meaning of the term (a brothel or other “house of ill repute”), it skyrockets in popularity until around 1979, with a brief and radical resurgence in the early 2000s. “Cat tree” is virtually nonexistent until the late 1970s, but it has been climbing (no pun intended) in popularity ever since.

While these changes in the words we use are interesting, what do they actually tell us? First and most obviously, they reveal changes in the ways we write about the spaces in which animals live. We have replaced words like “cage” and “kennel” with words like “house.” As human relationships with animals become closer and more interrelated, so too have our words for the places we all live. But the second question that arises is why certain terms – like “dog house” or “cat house” – have decreased in recent years. Does this mean that we are no longer thinking on terms of providing animals with comfortable living arrangements? I would suggest that it indicates the opposite. More and more, the places our animals live are indistinguishable from the places we ourselves live. What use is a term like “dog house” if the dog house is also the human house? Now, more and more, human and animal family members all live together in the “house,” one word, plain and simple. This is borne out by the rise of terms like “dog bed” and “cat bed,” both of which start being used widely in the mid-1970s and continuing to climb to this day. Prior to the 1970s, we didn’t think much of “dog beds” because that’s not how we thought of the places dogs sleep. Our world changes, our thinking changes, and our language changes with it.

While the idea of caging versus housing is one of the most obvious ways we can track a real change in our attitudes and perceptions about animals, it calls to our attention the fact that we might want to pay more attention to the words we use. Do we refer to a dog or a cat as an “it” or as a “she”? Do we refer to them as “dumb animals” without realizing the complicated sets of feelings and communication skills each animal has? When we refer to our animals as our “children,” how does that affect our thinking?

Looking closely at the words we use helps us understand our own views better, and gives us an insight into what other people mean or know based on the words they use. It lets us choose better words when we realize the ones we’re using may in fact reflect outdated or even harmful ways of thinking. Most of all, it lets us think a little more about what we’re really talking about when we talk about animals.

In our next column, we’ll look at more ways we use language to talk about animals, this time in regard to pit bulls, who may be more caught up in human rhetoric than any other domesticated animal.

Note: Usage frequency determined using Google’s Ngram Viewer, a resource for searching words and phrases in millions of digitized volumes in English. The words and phrases examined in this article were studied across approximately 300 years.

Bill Hutchison, the shelter's former communications director, is currently working on a doctorate in English at the University of Chicago, specializing in animal studies.