linguistic experts have long noted that language shapes culture, and that culture shapes language, forming a cycle of continual memetic evolution of culture. we find that our social practices are legitimized by linguistic structures, and that we euphemize our worst social practices by codifying them into what i can only call 'politically correct language'. among other consequences, this allows evil to become an acceptable part of our culture.
how does this phenomenon play out in the common cultural practice of carnivorism?
the semantics surrounding meat consumption are extremely complex. we find that entirely different dialects exist to describe meat consumption depending on the specific dietary subculture in question.
omnivorous human beings, who consume meat, use a large number of terms to describe their practices. a nearly countless number of specific terms, often from foreign languages, are used to describe meat, based on the specific cut and animal from which the cut was taken. i am no butcher, so i speak only from limited experience and knowledge. at least in North America, the most commonly consumed animals are the cow, chicken, pig, and turkey, and much less commonly, the lamb, goat, rabbit, bear, deer, and others.
cows and pigs have the dubious honor of having the most distinct and commonly recognized cuts. for cows, the most common are the brisket, flank, rib, sirloin, T-bone, and rump - some of which are often simply abbreviated as 'beef' - while for pigs, the most common are the shoulder, ribs, side, 'ham' (backside/thigh), and others. chickens are more simply separated into drumsticks, wings, breast, and assorted other parts, and the same roughly applies for turkeys, with the 'dark meat' and 'white meat' distinction. deer are simply called 'venison', while bear meat often enjoys no special recognition.
when described in this sense, it is clear that these terms all refer to anatomical locations. they are the part of the animal's body that has been sliced off and served. however, in a culinary context, these terms lose virtually all connection to their origins. 'chicken' and 'beef', served in a context completely different from their origins, are thought of strictly as substances.
when looking at a restaurant menu, we must deliberately think of 'chicken' as an animal to recognize what we are being served - an animal that experiences conscious thought - much less, when it is described with a suffix such as 'breast' or 'wings', or even just alone - 'wings'. the same is even more true of 'beef', which does not share a word with its animal of origin. beef is thought of as a brown substance with meaty qualities. a surprising number of people rarely even cook it, and even when they do, it's so often purchased in its processed form - ground beef, which has begun to lose its resemblance to the flesh that it is.
vegetarians and vegans, when discussing their approaches to diet with omnivores, often find themselves dealing with phrases made in the assumption that they're denying themselves something desirable - i.e., "mmn, i love bacon", or, "i'll take a hamburger right now". it is noteworthy that these phrases rarely include any relation to any actual slaughter or consumption of the animal itself - only the highly isolated, detached, and prepared versions of their flesh that people consume. people will not seriously suggest that they should find a wild boar and attack it with their teeth - for many people, that would be the end of their lives. mired in the assumption that meat consumption is morally defensible and nutritionally sound, the omnivores simply mock vegans and vegetarians based on the pleasures they shortsightedly perceive from their practices.
vegetarians, and especially, vegans, describe the practice of meat consumption in plainly moral and often clinical terms. meat is more commonly referred to with terms such as 'dead animal' or 'flesh'. the conditions of animals in captivity are described plainly, such as the dosages with recombinant bovine growth hormone, the antibiotics and antivirals, or the unnatural grain diets animals are often fed in post-industrial societies - or, in the case of 'ethical' or 'husbandry'-oriented meat industry, the slaughterhouse experience of the animals.
in the words of George Bernard Shaw - "I was a cannibal for twenty-five years. For the rest I have been a vegetarian." vegans and vegetarians very often recognize some portion of the spectrum of animal life, that so intimately relates us to other animals. our genome, which, at least in rough summary, serves as the 'recipe' for the mix of chemicals that compose our bodies, shares remarkable similarities across mammals, and even with rodents, avians, and invertebrates. many people who have practiced cannibalism in the past have remarked that human flesh tastes remarkably similar to pig flesh, and i've spent some time recently considering gluttonous police with the image of "pigs eating pigs". as far as life on this planet is concerned, we are very literally eating our close relatives, and we are suffering for it with debilitating illnesses, moral and spiritual deadness, and devastating pollution.
so, in terms of semantics, it is not surprising that this understanding manifests itself in 'clinical' terms similar to those described. after all, it is the vegetarians and vegans who see the industry surrounding the "meat", the awareness possessed by the animals involved, and the absolute devastation that lies in the wake of meat consumption, while those who consume meat rarely attempt to make any argument in their defense - assuming these arguments have already been won - and simply focus on the enjoyment they've managed to marinate and fry into their animal flesh. that is another interesting point of note - while vegans and vegetarians gladly eat a variety of raw foods (i just finished off a pound of peas, myself), omnivores will rarely ever eat raw meat, or even unseasoned meat. meat is rarely sauteed (i guess turkeys are basted with butter?), and only occasionally fried. in order to make meat palatable, a large variety of vegetables, fungi, and spices are often added, and these additions are often what turns a meat preparation into a dish.
for instance, Italian cooking heavily depends on the addition of tomatoes, basil, oregano (and also cheese products and grains) to meat for its preparation. we have imported a large number of these dishes into American culture. for instance - lasagna, pizza, ragu, pizzaiola, "parmesan" (a preparation with marinari and parmesan breading, usually with chicken, veal - baby cow - or eggplant), and others. Arabic cuisine often incorporates meat into bread, or serves meat on bread, while the same can be often said of Turkish and Greek cuisine. Asian cultures often create similar dishes with rice-based noodles and vegetables, such as dumplings, or the Indian "tandoori" meat preparation.
it seems to very often be the case that meat is the substance of dietary impurities that people perceive in their lives, but are unable to identify. my theory is that this sort of cultural ingraining of meat consumption, in terms of the cultural institution of cuisine, with its strongly rooted family traditions, is the primary difficulty people have in recognizing these problems - and it is our language that ultimately shapes how we view our cuisine. thus, understanding the biases inherent in how we describe what we see as 'food' can go a long way to help reshape our attitudes towards reality.