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Why not just use 'animals' to indicate (factual) 'animals' (including humans)?

When indicating something involving animals and humans, it's common to use "animals and humans" rather than simply using 'animals'.

That is, commonly, when using the word "animals", it means "all animals, except humans".

Try to consider a naïve example:

She helps animals.

(Most) people will interpret as:

She helps animals, excluding humans

If she helps animals, including humans, she needs to describe:

She helps animals and humans.

Unable to just say:

She helps animals.

But every human knows animals including humans certainly. 1

Therefore, humans should use animals in general cases, and use non-human animals when meaning "all animals, except humans".

An example:

Non-human animals are also an important cultural... 1

How to explain the contradiction well when humans use the word "animal" they are indicating to non-human animals except superiority or convention?

It is like people don't say "fruits and apples", they just say fruits (including apples).

Why not just use 'animals' to indicate (factual) 'animals' (including humans)?


Please note: This post is about word usage, rather than taxonomy, philosophy, or theology.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on English Language & Usage Meta, or in English Language & Usage Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 24 at 15:02
  • This is essentially a particularisation of general question about 'why is it that the language is not used this way but is used that way?' Polysemy, and in particular polysemy-with-hypernymy, is a fact of life, and has been discussed on ELU before. Commented Feb 24 at 19:12
  • library, you added a lot to your question over the weekend including trying to ping several answerers, but pings don't work in question and answer text, only in comments. And then your comments were edited out. Which means no one looked again to see your changes. You should have commented to the corresponding answers directly. (I only luckily saw them by other means).
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 26 at 14:38
  • I'd say this question is largely a duplicate of How do you refer to a hyponym that is the same word as the hypernym?, with an unrealistic appeal tacked on. The former question has answers addressing (and naming) autohyponymy; the example 'animal' has the scientific (kingdom level) sense contrasted with what is perhaps best termed the everyday (= a mammal; class level) usage. Commented Feb 26 at 15:17

3 Answers 3

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Annoyingly, words can have more than one meaning (in fact most do). 'dog' can mean the friendly house pet (not a cat), or it can be used as a term of affection among men of a certain age, or it can be used as a verb to mean 'to annoy or harass' (or a few other things).

Another annoying thing, any particular definition of one of these meanings isn't a fact, it's just sort of after the fact of what you tend to use the word for. We grow up, we learn about these moving furry things and people refer to them as 'animals'. But then we realize those moving things in the water (fish) must be animals too. And then that results in someone writing a dictionary entry that says 'an animal is a living thing that moves around'. A dictionary definition is not a rule that forces you to be right or wrong according to the definition - it is a description of how most people use the word (and sure if you're using the word differently from how most people do then you could be called 'wrong').

But then someone notes "Hey, people are living things (it's so obvious), and they move around (also obvious, just look)... are people animals?" Most children would say "Of course not. Animals don't talk, they live outside, and are dirty. People are nothing like animals." And that is what is important for that idea (that definition) of animal. Those extra features exclude people from being animals.

Another example is that there are doctors and there are veterinarians - they know mostly the same things except who their patient population is, people or animals, and there is -no- overlap (barring the usual heist movie trope where the injured gangster has to be stitched up by ... it's shocking ... a vet).

But then pedantic (or sciency) adults (or 10 year old know it alls) come along who say that sometimes it's easier to lump people in with the animals than to distinguish them. Scientists have found DNA that is common among some living things and not in others, and so it'll be more convenient to call people a kind of animal.

So the term 'animal' that most people use, wtends to exclude people. But there is another definition (a description of use, not a rule) of 'animal' that -does- include people.

This means that the word 'animal' is ambiguous. Sometimes it means non-human animals, and sometimes animals including people. Which version is intended is often clear by context.

My only chore on the farm as a ten year old was letting in all the animals from pasture.

Here it is obvious by context (and experience with farms), that no people were let in from pasture.

But if the context does not make it clear then it is better to add something that does clarify:

Biologists include humans in the mammal category of animals.

To summarize, contrary to your statements, most people do not naturally think of humans as animals, but will concede if pointed out. But this is considered a pedantic version of 'animal'.

To address your very first question

Why not just use 'animals' to indicate (factual) 'animals' (including humans)?

it is easier to use a simple term in the most common contexts: 'animal' in most contexts is distinguished from 'people' (eg farming and pets and civilization) - to refer to all animals in the zoological sense but in the generic context you'd want to say in that context 'animals including humans'.

But if you're in the context of evolution or biology, sure, the term 'animal' incudes humans. If you want to refer to those animals that are not humans, you'll have to keep saying 'non-human animals'.

If you want to be understood, keep track of your contexts. And the 'humans are not animals' context is much more common.

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  • “Apes” generally does not include homo sapiens, and yet there we are, acting like all the other great apes.
    – Xanne
    Commented Feb 24 at 4:07
  • 1
    In fact, "dog" can mean specifically a male Canis familiaris (not a bitch), Canis familiaris of either sex, or a variety of other canids.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 24 at 9:45
  • I still say this is not about English as it would be true in all the languages I know. That is language that have the two words: animal and human. Doesn't anyone tell the children that animals and humans can be mammals?
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 24 at 17:48
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It is fairly obvious that the word animal has two senses: the wider one that includes humans an the narrower one that excludes them. A word's having two senses, so that in its wider sense it is a hypernym for itself in the narrower sense, is not an entirely unusual linguistic phenomenon. Apparently, the term for such a word is autohyponym, although I doubt that many people (even among the regular contributors to this site) are familiar with that term.

Given that animal is, in fact, used in both senses, the OP's question amounts to asking why people don't always use it in the wider sense, and stop using it in the narrower sense (which would presumably necessitate replacing the narrower sense with something like nonhuman animals). The obvious answer is that using the word in the narrower sense is sometimes convenient, and that the context usually makes it clear which sense is intended. Why would we stop using the word in way that is sometimes convenient?

Now, some people believe that there is in fact a reason for that: they believe that using the word in the narrower sense leads people to think that the differences between humans and (other) animals are greater than they are, and that this in turn promotes immoral treatment of (other) animals. As a manifestation of their commitment to animal rights, these people use the word animal in exactly the way that the OP is advocating, i.e. they use animals only in the wider sense that includes humans, and always say nonhuman animals if that is what they are referring to. If one shares this moral commitment, one may choose to manifest it by speaking in this way, and encouraging everybody to do so. Arguing that everybody should adopt that way of speaking can, however, be persuasive only when embedded in a general moral/political argument for a recognition of animal rights. For the reasons stated in the preceding paragraph, it is unlikely to be convincing outside such a context.

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  • It has been pointed out that the metaphorical usage is also commonly used, so 'Ivan the Terrible was an animal' shows a third sense. Also, many speak of animals as distinct from fish and birds (so loosely, mammals). // Autohyponymy (polysemy-with-hypernymy) has certainly been addressed before on ELU. Commented Feb 26 at 15:19
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As I perceive this question, it could be considered as a problem in the semantics of English, in a totally virgin area of the linguistics of this language that would be language planning, in the field of sociolinguistics. Technically, and informally, this is not an absolutely void area of activity, and the question in the OP becomes acceptable, provided it is taken as in the OP's text, that is, as "Why not just use 'animals' to indicate (factual)'animals'(including humans)?". I propose an answer because I happen to consider as self-evident the facts in favour of not doing so; I use otherwise the support of no known authotity on the subject.

As highlighted by user Stuart F, "the Judaeo-Christian creation myth clearly separates humans from other animals.", and this fact, if not exclusive in giving rise to a clear separation between the two in the thinking at the foundation of Western culture (therefore Anglo-Saxon culture), reflects a corresponding state of affairs in the present day secular culture in those realms. That is to say, this separation exists as a principle that operates beyond the bounds of strict religious culture, and that is so in spite of the waning influence of that latter (which raises questions as to the part it has played in this separation, but that is not the point). The distinction is therefore as important and useful as ever; preserving it allows an uncomplicated access to the literature, past and present. Moreover, it is not detrimental to modern day changing attitudes towards animals in the way of preserving and advocating more humane practices as regards to how, we, humans, treat them; after all it is nowadays thought to be well to delineate clearly gender differences.

As again highlighted by user Stuart F, "historically, the idea that humans are animals has only been widely accepted from the late 19th century", and it can be said, I believe, that this new scientific reality has still not really displaced traditional thinking; we turn a rather favourable eye towards the idea of using animal tissue in medicine, but animals, more than ever, cannot attain to any equal position with humans: in the choice of whom shall perish, of the family pet and a child in this same family, there is no dilemma, in the choice of whom shall be eaten first in a case of perduring siege, there is (bar exceptions) no dilemma, etc. It is a fact that only certain minority currents of spiritual thinking place human beings on a higher plane of existence, yet human life is still quasi-generally deemed of much greater value, and we generally think this should remain so. It appears then that the impact of scientific progress leaves traditional values on the whole unaffected.

The argument just proposed aims at making salient the importance of the distinction embodied in the word "animal" in its traditional acceptation, and therefore, at stressing that its definition shouldn't be changed. In the eventuality of this being the chosen manner of proceeding, we are left with the havoc "created" by scientific progress, which tells us that animals are biological entities very similar to human beings, that, therefore, those latter can be considered to be also animals, and that, as from now, they will be so called. But this late introduction of a new definition into the language is nothing more than a fact of language planning that has been left solely to specialists in the domain of zoology! Since when do we know of perfect, impeccable planning that never had to be modified and adjusted? It is only needed to consider in the field of astronomy the recent case of scientists having to contend with such an instance of erroneous evaluation, and to revise their outdated thinking, to in turn make known that what had been considered a planet for quite some time was not in fact a planet. In the encyclopedias, the description of the celestial body known as Pluto will have to be changed from "planet" to "dwarf planet". This is nothing exceptional in the world of science.

Is Pluto a planet?
And then, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reconsidered Pluto’s status. In a controversial vote, astronomers — not planetary scientists — “demoted” Pluto to the status of being classified as a dwarf planet, taking away one major planet and reducing the number in our solar system to eight. Astronomers suddenly took sides, seeing various sides in the logic, and schoolchildren all around the world were heartbroken, having been enamored with the story of the most distant and mysterious planet that was discovered by a young, self-educated researcher, and having that status heartlessly yanked away.

[…]

For many years prior to Pluto’s reclassification, astronomers had come to realize that the Kuiper Belt, the cloud of small bodies in the outer solar system, holds countless thousands of icy objects, and some of them are relatively large. Would astronomers eventually have a situation in which they had many more planets to add to the equation? Nerves began to be rattled. Pluto, some reasoned, could be the tip of the iceberg of an entirely new class of countless objects.

What makes the community of zoological scientists immune to the possibility of having to revert to revisionist practices? The path to follow is clear: let the newfangled and brash decision be reconsidered and make place to a new term in the scientific field, a term that truly reflects the scientific reality and that does not imply tampering with solid tradition. What keeps that body of scientists to decrete (possibly assisted by linguists or the linguistically minded among them) that from now on animals and human beings are to classified as belonging to the kingdom of, for instance, bestions? Of course, this is a mere example, and plenty of possibilities can be examined so as to try to comply best with a variety of criteria. Do we have to be reminded every time we are confronted with the concept "animal" as meaning "non-human", of the fact that we, humans, are nothing more than something like animals? I don't think so.

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