Veganism and the Squiggly Red Line: What’s in a Word?

Recently, while working on another blog post, I noticed that the word ‘veganism’ was not recognised by my word processor’s spell-check feature. Although included in both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, my computer doesn’t recognise its existence. Therefore, whenever I type the word I am confronted by the squiggly red line that I can only interpret a sign that we need to advocate harder and more coherently for veganism, in order that the word itself enters into mainstream discourse.  If we want to create dialogue around our unjust use of nonhuman animals, then we cannot (and should not attempt to) disassociate ourselves from using the word that succinctly points to the philosophy on which the rejection of that use–our recognition of the moral worth of those animals–is based.

Animal rights advocates complain about the misappropriation of the term ‘vegan’ by plant-based dieters, and rightly so. The word ‘vegan’ passes the spell-check test but, according to most large dictionaries, that word describes someone who merely rejects a range of products,*  and ‘vegan’ has, therefore, come to be divorced from its moral and philosophical roots, both in common parlance as well as in the reference tools of computer software.

Those who reject the use of the word ‘vegan’ in their advocacy are not without culpability for this detachment, which goes far beyond the computer screen (how many of you have asked for a vegan menu in a restaurant only to be told about the gluten-free options?). Talking about our moral obligations to nonhuman animals without placing veganism front and centre is as much of a misdirection as speaking of veganism while obscuring its connection to animal rights. As long as we are not clear in our advocacy that moral regard for nonhuman animals necessitates veganism, and vice versa, we will continue to be confronted by that squiggly red line that treats a moral system based on fundamental justice as a non-issue.



*Merriam-Webster Online defines ‘vegan’ as ‘a person who does not eat any food that comes from animals and who often also does not use animal products (such as leather)’; interestingly, this dictionary provides no definition for ‘veganism’. The OED Online gives us ‘a person who abstains from all food of animal origin and avoids the use of animal products in other forms.’

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