Language is a powerful and essential tool used by Homo sapiens throughout history in order to convey meaning, purpose, and intent. The step up from pictographs to a rich, flexible means of communication advanced comprehension of a shared idea among our human family. However, in order to move understanding to its fullest potential, we developed a means of descriptivism that echoed our past use of pictures. In short, we painted our sentences with simile, metaphor and other figures of speech in order to move expression from a range of images to a more accurate vision of what we wished to convey.
This method of expression works for the most part, but as with any set of tools used inappropriately, a less than desirous effect occurs. Take, for instance, a simple noun, such as “dog,” that is used in any number of ways to emphasize and project certain qualities of this noble beast upon other species or events. I was “dog-tired,” or I was “dogged” relentlessly for an answer,” suggests two entirely different aspects of an otherwise inert subject. And therein lies the danger.
Over time, with accepted repetition, labeling and categorization can occur that results in a detrimental and false projection of the once innocuous word, term, or subject. Look at what we’ve done to the pig; to say one is “piggish” denotes a selfish, rapacious nature, not only about the person in question, but the animal, as well. What about the jackass? Calling someone an “ass” is not a very nice sentiment at all, even though I’ve petted some very nice donkeys.
But what concerns me today is how effectively our language has demonized the wolf. The Oxford Dictionary states that we use “wolf” in “similes and metaphors to refer to a rapacious, ferocious, or voracious person or thing.” The movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, exposes an aggressive, ambitious character that is uninhibited by morals or conscience. A person who is financially bereft can experience “the wolves at the door,” or those who value money more than the plight of the person and his or her family. Those are certainly not very good people knocking at the door.
I’ve only begun with comparisons; here are more. A seducer of men or women for sexual pleasure only is also known as a wolf. Ever heard of wolf notes? As a former musician, I can assure you that you do not want to hear these out of tune sounds that are akin to nails on a chalkboard. Know someone with bad table manners? Chances are the person wolfs down their food with utmost greed.
Then there are the typical phrases and idioms. One cries wolf if he or she is more after attention than help. If you’re a hard worker, chances are you earn enough money to keep the wolf from the door. Having the wolf by the ears places one in a very precarious position. If you throw someone to the wolves, then you’ve abandoned him or her to the worst wiles of the world. And of course, a wolf in sheep’s clothing is never to be trusted, as they are devious and up to no good.
In American slang, to cut one’s wolf loose means to go on a drinking binge. That’s not exactly a model way to spend one’s evening. To have a wolf in one’s belly is akin to overwhelming avarice or appetite. And then there is the worst example, in my opinion, used by the media to describe terrorists: the lone wolf.
As a naturalist and advocate for wolves, this problem has perplexed me for some time. Our language is filled with word associations that, often without thought, ultimately further the declining reputation of a particular animal. For the wolf, this misuse of language has led to furthering myths about these canines, along with demeaning their real value within the environment. It’s hard enough to try to save a species when you’re working against greedy ranchers, irresponsible hunters, and the politicians the former two puppeteer, but to try to change clichés and idioms that are embedded within our language is exhausting.
What can you do as a person who speaks for the wolves of the world? You can correct a person’s casual misuse of the word, wolf, and its collective, wolves, by explaining how his or her language is not only maligning these animals, but that they are helping to further the destruction of an apex predator. Wouldn’t it be a better world where words do no harm? That’s an idealistic question, but the answer is one that we all can make a worthy goal. Even if we cannot change all the bad in the world, we can certainly change ourselves and our little corner of this beautiful earth. And that will definitely help the beautiful, essential wolf and their families in their bid for continuation.
December 27, 2014