“Vegan” is Two Words

I’d like to clear up some confusion about the words “vegan.” The person who coined the term “vegan,” Donald Watson, explained that he saw vegan as “the beginning and end of vegetarian,” taking the beginning and end of the word veg-etari-an. It was thus not merely an extension of the vegetarian diet, but something more, something bigger which encompassed vegetarian – a political ethic, from which the diet and lifestyle naturally flows.  This is why many vegans object to the notion that someone who is “vegan” merely for the environment is actually vegan. Ida at The Vegan Ideal points out that the term has been unjustly appropriated by the dominant culture.

Now here’s the deal. As someone who has studied linguistics, I respect the evolution of language, which is one aspect of culture. If “vegan” refers to a mere dietary practice in our culture/language, which it does, then I respect that. Sure, we can point to the etymology of “vegan,” but I don’t think it is that important. What is confusing about “vegan” is that, by reducing “vegan” down to a mere extension of vegetarian without changing the form of the word makes it appear that we are only dealing with one word here. In fact, when we say that “vegan” has two meanings, what we really mean is that “vegan” is two words that are homophonic and spelled the same.

Even more confusing is the fact that the reason “vegan” now means a mere dietary practice is probably due to many people failing to understand the original meaning of the word. Vegans following the original meaning of “vegan” still see the popular usage of the term as no more than a misappropriation.

The French language appears not to have this confusion. Végétarien means “vegetarian,” végétalien means an extension of vegatarian, and végan means a political ethic and practice opposing all abuse of animals. (If you’ve ever studied languages, you probably noticed that it’s completely guaranteed to come across instances where what appears to be one word in one language is two or more in another.) Végétalisme is just a dietary practice of abstaining from dietary animal consumption, whereas a végan would also oppose fur farming, animal vivisection, puppy mills, etc. and other forms of animal consumption.

Clearly, then, “vegan” is two words. Of course, language is always negotiable and constantly evolving, and I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to efforts to clear up this confusion by changing some words around, or even continuing to try to completely reclaim the word. Nevertheless, it is possible to reduce the confusion simply by calling attention to the linguistic mechanics going on here. A word is still a legitimate word, even if it has been misappropriated. If we really want to change the language, we cannot simply argue against this new meaning; we will have to take the positive action of beginning to use another signifier in its place, i.e. herbivore. Until veganism becomes much more popular, though, I don’t see this change happening.


~ by Louëlla on May 14, 2010.

2 Responses to ““Vegan” is Two Words”

  1. Thanks for this post. I’d like to add that historically vegetarian also carried with it a political and ethical meaning that has been loose (indeed, vegetarian itself is rapidly entering the point of terminal incoherence). However, when vegetarian was popularized by the vegetarian society, it was specifically linked with anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and egalitarian movements.

    Again, thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks for your comment – good points. “Environmentalism” and “green” have even looser meanings, I would say, so it is certainly not a problem limited to this issue. In my Green Politics class, we discussed our frustration with these terms, how there’s nothing concrete to them. I think that in the case of vegetarian/vegan, since there actually is clearly a concrete aspect, people can latch onto it more easily than with environmentalism, although there are also those who try to reduce environmentalism to consumerism.

    I am not familiar with the history of the words “environmentalism” and “green,” however.

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