I’m taking a much-needed break from cataloguing and writing to dig into old treasures. Prompted by the common nineteenth-century phrase, “dumb animal,” to refer to all non-human creatures, I was trying to find out when the term fell out of use. Was it a shift; did the word “dumb” transition from referring to the mute to signaling the stupid?
Ah, but I was wrong. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “dumb” has meant some form of stupid as early as 1756. As for its meaning of mute, it seems that the last OED reference to such a use was 1957. So, “dumb” always meant “stupid,” but its meaning of “mute” fell out of the lexicon around mid-century.
It strikes me now that the phrase “dumb animal” had at least one advantage: it categorically reaffirmed that humans, too, are animals. This is the kind of work that our modern phrasing, “non-human animal,” attempts to do, but which has also been critiqued for its inherent anthropocentrism.
When I first encountered the term, I admit to feeling averse to it. My association of the word with “stupid” was so strong, that I felt like I was insulting animals every time I wrote it. Moreover, the emphasis on their inability to speak human tongues, which has for centuries been considered as proof of their inferiority to humankind, seemed to be adding insult to injury.
Of course, then and now, animal welfare organizations have been emphasizing animal voicelessness as an inferiority that should therefore call upon us, the superiorly-endowed, to defend and protect them.
I really have mixed feelings about this rhetorical move. Maybe I would be less burdened if it were made clear that non-human animals—and all of nature—are voiceless only in the context of human affairs, only through the narrow vision of anthropocentrism, then to state that animals are voiceless would merely be to state the truth.