Frosting the Glass (more on Euphemisms)

I ended the previous post (‘Public Labs’) with a quotation from the journal Comparative Medicine, chosen to show that ‘environmental enrichment’ – i.e. introducing natural or at least interesting features into the cages or boxes where laboratory animals are kept – has itself become a going animal-testing-equipmenttheme for research. But the quotation is also worth attention as a fascinating and instructive sample of animal-research prose. Here it is again:

However, animal wellbeing, as reflected by normal growth, development, and reproduction with low likelihood of injury, illness, distress, or maladaptive behavior, can exist even in housing situations in which the animal cannot perform its entire repertoire of species-appropriate behaviors, particularly if the animal will be maintained for a relatively short portion of its lifespan.

Let’s begin by appreciating that prize euphemism in the last clause, so rich in evasions that even now I don’t feel sure that I’m understanding it rightly. I take it to mean ‘particularly if you kill the animal unusually young’. If I’m right, this is something more sophisticated than the ordinary patch-words like ‘sacrifice’ or ‘euthanize’. A sort of smoke-screen has been laid down over the whole scene. The animal itself is, of course, made the victim of a passive verb (“will be maintained”): how often, in such journals, is a person ever seen doing anything to an animal in the active voice – assessing its ‘hot-plate latency’, for instance (see previous blog-post), by putting it on a hot plate? But, ingeniously, the verb in this case, though admittedly sharing in the general semantic fog, is detectably a beneficent rather than injurious one: ‘maintaining’ means looking after, doesn’t it? And it’s not even in the negative. In fact there’s no telling at what point in this clause the animal ceases to “be maintained”, a.k.a. is killed. The whole idea of time is helpfully obscured by converting it into space or quantity: ‘lifespan’ and ‘portion’. (For another instance of this same conversion technique, see the earlier post ‘Truths, Euphemisms, and Statistics’.) A hint seems to have been taken from the famous lines in the Victorian poet Arthur Clough’s ‘Latest Decalogue’:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive / Officiously to keep alive.

Clough’s poem is indeed largely concerned with what we allow others to see us doing. In that respect, the words of the article are the equivalent of well-frosted glass.

I don’t mean to pillory this text. It’s at least a more or less grammatical sentence, using unpretentious vocabulary. The trouble is that it’s so much in thrall to abstraction that the real and material subject – cages, and the animals inside them – is not so much illuminated as replaced by the words. Thus, instead of an animal being well, ‘animal wellbeing exists’; instead of a cage, a ‘housing situation’. In fact, instead of animals or an animal, that devitalized generic term “the animal”. And so on. The point is more simply made by translating the sentence back into real life:

However, an animal can remain in good health – that is, it can grow, mature, and reproduce, without injury, illness, distress, and neurotic behaviour – even in a cage where it cannot do all that it wants, particularly if it is not allowed to live long.

Has anything gone missing in this plain-spoken version? Perhaps the full sense of that phrase “low likelihood of injury …etc.”? But surely the sense is quite adequately expressed in the word ‘can’, meaning simply that it is possible, but not certain, that the animal will suffer none of these set-backs. The authors have presented this idea as a probability, implying that a known proportion of any collective of such animals will be free of illness. But in either version, the proposition only makes helpful sense if quantified, or linked to other studies which have quantified it, and this the authors do not do here. I would guess, therefore, that they have preferred “low likelihood” to “can” for the same reason that accounts for all the rest: it’s more abstract, further away from unscientifically particular animals suffering particular injuries – the equivalent in prose of cleaning up the cosmetic-testing-animal-remainsdisgusting mess on the work-bench before anyone else sees it.

The article in question is a review of other work rather than a report of original research, so there wasn’t any mess of its own to clear up; the sanitized style is really just professional habit. But it’s a thoroughly bad habit. No doubt we need euphemisms in our personal communications, for the sake of kindness and decency. And of course sciences all need their particular technical vocabularies, though probably not as much as their initiates like to suppose. But with the horrors of the 20th century laid out behind us, it hardly needs saying that – in public discourse – euphemism, and abstraction more generally, make life easier for every bad practice, from casual cruelty to mass slaughter. The more plainly we speak and write, the better we ourselves, as well as others, can see what we’re really doing, and whether we ought to be doing it at all.

I should briefly add that the article in question proposes that ‘enrichment’ is not the invariable good it might be supposed, for science or even for the animals. The study was connected, in some way not specified anywhere in the text, with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, at Natick, Massachusetts. That’s not an encouraging association (see the post ‘Remembering (some of) the Fallen’), but at least the article has been made freely available, and you can read it, if you wish, at


The photographs are by Brian Gunn (