My children are a little different to the children of my friends and colleagues… The most obvious distinction is probably that my two boys both have four legs, a tail and a thick coat of fur. These are not conventional children – these are my fur babies.
Added to Oxford Dictionaries online in 2015 (although not yet to our own Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website), fur baby is an informal term for ‘a person’s dog, cat, or other furry pet animal’. The phrase has positive connotations, at least in the eyes of animal lovers, and a corpus search reveals that fur baby is often combined with such favourable adjectives as beloved, adorable, precious and beautiful. By employing the term, we devoted pet parents can demonstrate to others just how important a role our animals play in our families and in our lives.
It must be acknowledged that some people will find the notion of fur babies very strange, especially those from cultures where animals are not treated in this way. While they may question whether a direct comparison can (or indeed should) be drawn between one’s biological children and one’s pets, I would argue that fur babies are in many ways very like their less furry, human counterparts. We welcomed a new puppy into our home last October and so ensued many a sleepless night, troubles with toilet-training, teething and picky eating, and tantrums galore, to say nothing of the difficulties we ran into when our little boy hit adolescence. Sibling rivalry is also a concern and we are still trying to reconcile the cat to having a younger canine ‘brother’.
Although fur baby may be a relatively recent coinage, the tendency to attribute human characteristics or behaviour to animals is not a new one. We even have a word for this concept: anthropomorphism. Defined in OALD as ‘the practice of treating gods, animals or objects as if they had human qualities’, anthropomorphism and its related adjective anthropomorphic and verb anthropomorphize are derived from the Greek anthrōpomorphos, itself from anthrōpos meaning ‘human being’ and morphē meaning ‘form’.
We don’t only anthropomorphize in everyday life: anthropomorphized animals figure very prominently in literature. Some classic examples from English literature are The Tale of Peter Rabbit (and Beatrix Potter’s other creations), Winnie-the-Pooh, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. While anthropomorphism is more prevalent in children’s literature, a famous work aimed at an adult audience, in which the majority of characters are anthropomorphized animals, is George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
There are also many examples of stories that anthropomorphize from other traditions. Aesop’s Fables, accredited to the Greek storyteller Aesop, and the Indian Panchatantra are collections of fables (= stories that teach moral lessons) about animals which behave in a human way. Anthropomorphic animals are also commonplace in fairy tales and folk tales, such as the traditional European story Little Red Riding Hood (versions of which were included in the compilations of tales put together by Charles Perrault of France and the Brothers Grimm of Germany), the West African folk tales (which later crossed to the Caribbean) about Anansi the trickster spider, and the Brer Rabbit stories of the southern United States.
Anthropomorphism is a well established linguistic device, with device in this sense being understood to mean ‘a form of words intended to produce a particular effect in speech or a literary work’. The OALD entry for anthropomorphic contains a link to the topic dictionary for Linguistic devices, where you can explore many more such terms, including others also of Greek origin, like chiasmus and zeugma. (Our topic dictionaries are groups of words related to common subject areas. You can browse all of our topic dictionaries here.)
Kallah Pridgeon is mummy to Ludo the dog and Arthur the cat. When not tending to her fur babies, she works as an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press.