Name Game: Coming to Terms
Because there is a close connection between veganism
and vegetarianism, many people - including the public,
media, health care professionals, and even practitioners
themselves - often unwittingly twist the meaning of
these terms. The word "vegetarian" was coined in 1847
by the founders of the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain.
(Prior to that time, people who abstained from eating
meat were called "Pythagoreans.") The definition of
"vegetarian" has not changed. It has always meant and
continues to mean "a person who does not eat meat, fish,
or fowl, and who may or may not eat dairy products or
The word "vegetarian" has always dealt solely with
what a person eats; it has never delved into the reasoning
behind a person's decision to practice a meat-free diet
and therefore does not address motivation. Consequently,
vegetarians embrace a wide range of perspectives and
rationales. There are vegetarians who believe a plant-based
diet is the most healthful, or that it will help them
lose weight, or that it is kinder to the environment.
For others it is a political statement or an economic
solution. Still others are motivated by their compassion
for animals. There are a number of groups and individuals
for whom vegetarianism is part of their religious convictions
or spiritual practices. Some view their vegetarianism
as temporary or a matter of circumstance; others see
it as a lifetime commitment.
Unlike vegetarianism, veganism has always had a specific,
unifying philosophy associated with it, and, in addition,
has always dealt with much more than what one eats.
The term "vegan" (pronounced VEE-gn) was coined by Donald
Watson in 1944, and was at once adopted by the group
who founded The Vegan Society in England later that
year. The Vegan Society was the first organized secular
group to promote a compassionate lifestyle. Their definition
of "veganism," which is accepted as the decisive standard
worldwide, is as follows:
Veganism is a way of living which excludes
all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal
kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies
to the practice of living on the products of the plant
kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs,
honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages
the use of alternatives for all commodities derived
wholly or in part from animals.
In its Articles of Association, the legal documents
of the Society, a slightly different version is presented:
Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living
which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible and practical
- all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals
for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension,
promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives
for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.
Both interpretations begin by stating that veganism
is a "way of life," and "a philosophy." Neither emphasizes
diet over other aspects of compassionate living, because
in vegan practice no one area is more significant than
another; all are expected to be implemented simultaneously.
In the second version, a disclaimer about practicality
has been inserted, revealing that the founders acknowledged
the impossibility of totally divesting oneself of all
animal products and derivatives in the modern world.
This phrase is also critical because it helps practitioners
understand that veganism is not about personal perfection
or "purity," but rather the avoidance and elimination
of exploitation of and cruelty to animals. The first
rendition mentions "reverence for life," with no hierarchy
of value given to the life to which it is referring.
Therefore, the statement is inclusive, asserting that
all life forms are equally deserving of reverence. It
also delineates the specific foods that are to be avoided,
and both definitions encourage the use and development
of alternatives to animal commodities.
The purpose and parameters of veganism are clearly
outlined in these definitions. They offer a distinct
contrast to vegetarianism, which is concerned strictly
with diet, and even then asserts that certain foods
may be left up to personal choice. On the other hand,
the explanation of veganism leaves virtually no room
for individual interpretation. Although it recognizes
the impossibility of perfect implementation of its tenets,
it provides unequivocal guidelines for not only food
choices but all other aspects of living. Furthermore,
it presents a reasoned doctrine that clarifies the specific
rationale that underscores the choice to be vegan. Such
a coalescence of consciousness is something that isn't
included in vegetarianism. Yet it has, from its inception,
been an integral and pivotal aspect of being vegan.
When the word "vegetarian" first came into existence,
there weren't different "types" of vegetarians. The
terms "strict vegetarian," "pure vegetarian," and "total
vegetarian" are neologisms that have been bandied about
for a few decades, perhaps even longer, with no specific
definitions attached to them. To some people, the adjective
"strict" means that they never waver in their avoidance
of flesh foods, but it may or may not mean that they
eat dairy, eggs, and honey or other bee products. To
others it means that they are severely "limited" or
"restricted" in their food choices. To still others
it means that they avoid all animal products and their
derivatives completely. How it is construed depends
on the person using the term, those who hear it, and
how each interprets it. The descriptive words "pure"
and "total" seem to refer more to the completeness of
one's vegetarian diet, i.e. avoiding dairy and eggs
and possibly honey, although some people might associate
the adjective "pure" with goodness or cleanliness. None
of these words refers to a person's motivation, since
vegetarians have diverse reasons for not eating meat.
Therefore, a "total vegetarian" can and might have convictions
similar to a vegan's, but the difference is the extent
that one puts this ideology into practice. A person
can be a "total vegetarian" and still eat honey and
wear leather shoes. Someone defined as a vegan, however,
The neologism "dietary vegan" has been used to describe
"total vegetarians" - people who avoid all animal products
in diet only. This term is problematic because it distorts
the meaning of "vegan" by narrowing it down to issues
related solely to food. Veganism is not about food;
it is about reverence for life. By minimizing it's substance,
we diminish the word's value. With this fandangle term,
"vegan" loses its defining characteristics and ultimately
becomes meaningless. What, then, differentiates "dietary
vegan" from "total vegetarian" or "total vegetarian"
from "vegetarian"? Suddenly we have a confusing, oxymoronic
set of useless vocabulary that confounds all who hear
it. Not surprisingly, the misinformed masses emerge,
vigorously defending the language they believe is accurate
There are groups of people who decry what they call
the "labeling" of people because, they contend, labels
are used to exclude rather than include others. Certainly
this can happen, especially when monikers are used to
alienate and stereotype rather than objectively identify.
It has become politically incorrect to attach a category
to individuals, because, in today's culture, hurtful
epithets frequently replace unbiased designations. Yet
there are many classifications that serve a very real
and valuable function. For instance, it is often helpful
to know who is left-handed, a Catholic, a homosexual,
hearing impaired, or a single mother. Having an easy
way to identify ourselves helps us locate others who
are similar to us. These are impersonal descriptive
categories that help us distinguish particular characteristics
about a person. There is nothing inherently positive
or derogatory about them. Nevertheless, some people
can and do associate negative stereotypes to these groups,
thereby turning perfectly harmless descriptive words
into cruel labels.
The words "vegan" and "vegetarian" simply help us to
clarify lifestyles and determine who among us shares
our outlook and experiences. They also give us a chance
to identify ourselves so we can gather together and
support each other in our similar views, challenges,
hopes, and desires. Without such terminology, we would
each be segregated from each other and alone. In this
way, "labels" serve to unite rather than isolate us.
But they are helpful only if they are used correctly
and retain their substance.
The words we use to define and distinguish ourselves
are not intrinsically "negative" or "positive." In fact,
the words themselves hold no bias whatsoever. It is
the human interpretation of these terms that
infuses them with prejudicial meaning. If we think that
having blue eyes is superior to brown eyes, then those
of us with brown eyes may be offended by anything having
to do with blue-eyed people. On the other hand, blue-eyed
people may feel they are better than brown-eyed people
simply by virtue of their eye color. The color of our
eyes does not elevate one group of people over another.
It is our own partiality toward one color or
another that causes us to falsely believe this is true.
While there are different types of vegetarians - lacto,
ovo, ovolacto, total, fruitarian, macrobiotic, living
foods - there is only one type of vegan. Being a vegetarian
or a vegan are not good or bad designations. They simply
are what they are. If we see one as better than the
other, we must remember that it is our bias at play.
Each of these words has a very specific definition,
and honoring these definitions is the only way for their
usefulness and intended meanings to remain intact.
Copyright © 1998-2014 by Jo Stepaniak
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