Animal tears

Animal tears

Animal tears

By Andreas Moser

I know that you know there are writings dedicated to the meaning of the word “animal” and its etymological kinship with the Latin word “anima” = “soul”. This is why you also know that “anima” originally meant “wind”, “air” or “breath”, and later acquired the generalized meaning of “vital principle” and “life”, finally becoming in Christianity the essence of life, namely the “soul”. We all zooanthropologically cheer when we recall that a strong linguistic bond connects us to animals. And we wonder why some of us continue to eat meat.

Since I am a native speaker of German, it’s not my task to reveal the connections between the Latin word “anima” and the old English “anda”, which nowadays translates as “anger”, “zeal” or “envy”. What I actually mean to draw attention to is the little word “deer”: I stumbled upon it for the first time many years ago with the movie “The Deer Hunter”. I have tried to forget it since, but in vain – too much cruelty for my then still juvenile soul. And too cruel and true it remains.

But back to etymology: “deer” seems to have, again, Indo-European or Indo-Germanic origins and to bear the meaning of “breathing creature”. On the other hand, the homophone “dear” has apparently old-German roots conveying the sense of “worthy, precious”. Unfortunately, more ancient meanings have been lost.

It would be cynical of me to refer to the platitude of meat being “dear” to humans because they like to eat it. Not the meat of saber-toothed tigers, nor of mammoths, or cats and dogs, but deer meat – because cows and pigs appeared on the human menu later.

As German belongs to the multitude of languages that are said to be bound to disappear form the planet in the forthcoming centuries, even regardless of the imminent ecological catastrophe, I wish the Anglo-Saxon world would remember one linguistic fact. The German for “animal”, “Tier”, sounds almost identical to “deer”, only that “t” is a voiceless plosive consonant whereas “d” is voiced. “Tier” seems to have the same origin as “deer”, meaning again “breathing creature”, with a first record of this sense dating back to the 8th century. Yet “Tier” in German cannot be applied to “humans”.

How comforting is it for zooanthropologists to know that zoology defines a “Tier” as a “living organism that does not obtain its energy through photosynthesis and requires oxygen for respiration, but that is not a fungus”? Like Tiers, we are not fungi. One more reason to hold them dear and shed tears of joy…

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