Hunting for Euphemisms: How We Trick Ourselves to Excuse Killing

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It's that time of the year again: In late autumn, a bunch of stories on how hunting connects us to meat always appear -- but they're all wrong

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In a recent Atlantic post, Barry Estabrook confessed, "As a journalist who takes issues surrounding food production seriously, I too have things that drive me crazy." Well, Barry, I'm with you. Add me to the list of writers occasionally driven to the brink. And note that fewer things make me crazier than the inevitable rash of late autumnal pieces on how hunting connects us to meat.

I was reminded of my distaste for this media trope just last week, when WNYC reported on Peter Zander's popular hunting workshops in Columbia County, New York. The story explained that Zander's motivation "for killing deer is to maintain the most intimate connection to the meat he eats." A friend emailed me the piece with the subject line "this will annoy you." Annoy me? The damn piece kept me up at night.

Nobody wants to cook "Five Spice Stew With a Mother Deer Shot With a High-Powered Rifle While Her Baby Slept Nearby."

Zander makes much of his desire to deliver a quick death. The blow, he explained, should be merciful. "I don't really want it [the hunt] to be evenly matched, I'm there to harvest my food ... I don't want to take a chance with [a weapon that is] under-powered or questionable. I want a sure shot that will take the animal out as humanely as I can." Most readers, I imagine, will applaud this logic, acknowledging Zander's compassion for the hunted. What initially strikes me, though, is Zander's language. Consciously chosen or not, his words mask the inherent brutality of his profitable hobby.

Zander's claim that he entered the woods "to harvest my food" is a common expression among conservation-minded hunters. The primary meaning -- and clear implication -- of "harvest" is, according to the OED, "to reap and gather" a cultivated crop. Not until the 1940s did hunters begin to apply the term to animals. While technically correct, Zander's use of "harvest" is intended to soften hunting's violent edge. The act of unnecessarily shooting an innocent animal -- which is, when you reduce it to its essence, gratuitous violence -- is cloaked in the innocuous language of plant-based agriculture. Zander refuses to take a chance with an under-powered weapon. Clearly he feels the same way about an over-powered but deadly accurate word: kill.

More problematic is Zander's desire for "a sure shot that will take the animal out as humanely as I can." I get -- and respect -- the wish for a quick death (if one absolutely must hunt). But again, the terminology is worth unpacking. The most violent connotation I could find for "take out" was "the striking of an opponent's stone out of play" in the sport of curling. But anyone who watches mafia movies knows the deeper implication of Zander's use of "take out." It's to murder somebody. Brutally. In the Wikipedia entry for the Italian mobster Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese -- Lucky's one-time underboss -- is said to have "wanted to take out" Lucky's competition.

And boy he did. But no one would describe Genovese's mob hits as being done "courteously," "kindly," "compassionately," or "benevolently" -- all used by the OED to define "humanely." The whackings were cold and gruesome. Zander believes he can "humanely" "take out" a deer. But that's about as possible as Sonny Corleone getting humanely taken out at that toll booth in The Godfather. Do note, though, that high-powered weaponry delivering "sure shots" render the harvesting of Corleone masterfully efficient. Humane? Not so much.

Zander's wife thickens this stew of euphemism with a few choice additions of her own. Not a hunter herself, she nonetheless attended one of her husband's ventures, and reported the event to be "transformative because I saw first-hand ... the reverence that the hunter has for the woods, and all of mother nature, and the animal that they're hunting." There's a lot to grumble about here, but let's focus on the assertion of reverence for the hunted animal. The OED primarily defines reverence as "deep or due respect" marked by "deference." Reverence also means "veneration" as a result of "a sacred or exalted character." Did these hunters defer to, venerate, or in any way exalt the sacred character of the deer they hunted and killed?

Consider the deer's perspective on the question. Female deer -- which are often targeted for the purposes of population control -- are deeply devoted mothers to their initially helpless offspring. Fawns, which weigh only a few pounds at birth, are vulnerable. They cannot stand with assurance until they consume their mother's milk. Afterwards, the mother feeds her offspring (usually one or two fawns) for several months and then proceeds to teach them where they can forage on their own. Once independent, deer join packs that are often monitored by a dominant male. When we see a deer munching berries, we too often fail to recognize the network of dependent relationships that define that deer's existence.

So let's say that one of Zander's's hunters got a mother deer in the crosshairs of his assuredly potent weapon. And let's say the mother's fawn was curled up in a perfectly camouflaged ball 20 yards away. And let's say the hunter fired that ever merciful sure shot, felling the mother deer in an instant. Is there reverence in this act? Given the deer's evident interest in not only her own life but the life of her offspring and pack, I'm hard pressed to find any hint of deference or veneration in an act that, you will recall, Zander himself declared should be unevenly matched. The only thing deferred to or deemed sacred is the hunter's hubris.

The text version of the WNYC piece ends with -- surprise! -- a recipe. And with that comes the last critical euphemism, one that happens to be about 800 years old. Nobody wants to cook "Five Spice Stew With a Mother Deer Shot With a High-Powered Rifle While Her Baby Slept Nearby." But what about "Five Spice Venison Stew"? Much more palatable.

Considering these verbal dodges, I'm left wondering: What kind of connection are we really seeking when we hunt for our own food? The standard line is that by hunting, butchering, and cooking animals we own the animal-to-menu supply chain and, in so doing, demystify the source of our meat. Sounds fine. But when we tell ourselves that we're humanely harvesting venison out of reverence for the deer -- rather than killing a sentient being to satisfy our palate -- we're not so much connecting with our food as we are manipulating language to avoid knowing what we don't want to know.

Image: rudall30/Shutterstock.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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