Replace ‘Husbandry’ with ‘Élevage’

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 16 min.

In a recent post—”‘Nights That Won’t Happen’ by David Bermen“—I wrote:

I hope we songwriters can all take the same care Bermen did with his words-and-music élevage.

I initially ended that with husbandry, but don’t like the word a few reasons, the perhaps most obvious of which can be found debated, top of the list, at the “Talk” page of Wikipedia‘s “Animal Husbandry” entry, in a section simply called “Sexist.” But there’s slightly more to it than that.

Before getting into it, here’s some background on the word.

Husbandry in the Dictionary

Merriam-Webster Collegiate entry for husbandry:

1) a. the cultivation or production of plants or animals : agriculture
b. the scientific control and management of a branch of farming and especially of domestic animals
2) the control or judicious use of resources : conservation
3) archaic : the care of a household

in accordance with his practice of good husbandry, he never buys anything on credit
a family of winemakers whose tradition of vineyard husbandry goes back several generations

frugality, economy, parsimony, penny-pinching, providence, scrimping, skimping, thrift

Notice how often the word control appears. There is a separate entry in that dictionary for animal husbandry, but that phrase does nothing more than to narrow the concept to its animal dimensions.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged puts the word’s etymology as:

Middle English housbondrie, from housbonde + –riery

This form—with its hous—aligns with the early-form first use of husbandry (according to Websters and other sources) in the 14th century, in its archaic sense as “the care of a household,” and with its relation to the word, husbandman, which means “farmer,” also originating in the 14th century (in the Middle English: housbondeman).

These words are of course related to husband, whose earlier form is also seen above—i.e., housbonde—and is given the following etymological account at Merriam-Webster Unabridged:

Middle English housbonde, husbonde husbandman, married man, master of a house, from Old English hūsbonda master of a house, from Old Norse hūsbōndi, from hūs house + bōndi householder, peasant owning his own land — more at housebond

Merriam-Webster Collegiate and Unabridged date husband‘s early-form first use to the 13th century, but conflict in their reports of meaning (the former gives the “male partner in marriage” meaning, while the latter cites the obsolete “farmer” meaning).

It’s interesting to notice that husband looks like a smooshing together of house and bound, the latter of which gets a bit more illumination at the Mirriam-Webster free online dictionary‘s husband entry:

Middle English husbonde, from Old English hūsbonda master of a house, from Old Norse hūsbōndi, from hūs house + bōndi householder; akin to Old Norse būa to inhabit; akin to Old English būan to dwell — more at BOWER

In that same dictionary’s entry on bound, the most obvious etymological assumption is confirmed:

Middle English bounden, from past participle of binden to bind

Finally, here’s the first paragraph of the above-mentioned Wikipedia article, “Animal Husbandry” (accessed 2/10/20):

Animal husbandry is the branch of agriculture concerned with animals that are raised for meat, fibre, milk, eggs, or other products. It includes day-to-day care, selective breeding and the raising of livestock.

(There is no broader “Husbandry” article.)

Husbandry Declined

My reasons for replacing husbandry (with élevage) are fairly simple.

Husbandry evokes images of husbands when I don’t mean to say anything about husbands. This makes the word feel sexist to me or, at the very least, smacks of our historical tendency to defer to or privilege the masculine—or, if you prefer, male—point of view of the world, often from the vantage point of creator, basis, or master of that world: e.g., God as masculinized world-creator; the ‘great man’ fallacy; in language and law, the inclusive he (see below for more on this).

For another specific, word-ish example, I’m often surprised to see the term seminal used to characterize groundbreaking feminist texts.

Two years ago (to the day, in fact), I shared some thoughts on seminal in a 17,000-word post whose broader context is hinted at in its title: “Four Dimensions of X-ism (and ‘Seminal’ Is Sexist).” Especially interesting there, I think, is the pushback experienced by a sociologist recommending a moratorium on the word at a conference. The usual point arose: the word’s current associations don’t reflect its origins. More interesting, I think, was the (correct and important) point that, even if it in some way does reflect its origins, masculinity in itself isn’t tantamount to maleness or patriarchy.

Interesting, certainly, but why should the masculine be privileged whatever its associations to gender or sex? Even more importantly, I think, for reasons too obvious to worry about listing here, that the long-held assumption of all things foundational being in some way quintessentially masculine does help, or perhaps in accumulation adds up to, the patriarchal cause.

I take husbandry to be another small chunk in the accretion. Fitting, as we think in chunks (and move in them: the activity of picking up a spoon, though consisting of trillions of small movements and other activities, involves only one simple instruction or impulse in human awareness: pick up the spoon; one need only initiate the move with the end goal in mind, and the body does the rest, typically; words are similar, more about which in a moment).

If not to some degree sexist, I think husbandry at the very least raises a distracting red flag that it might be.

But this isn’t the only reason I dislike the word. It’s also aesthetically plain, even ugly—or homely, to stay truer to its origin. That, along with its insistent and unapologetic suggestion of husbands (whether or not this makes it sexist or sexist-ish or, to use a phrasing I hear a lot these day, not not sexist), made it feel inapt for the metaphor I was struggling to convey, having to do with a generative, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts pairing of words and music.

I thought the metaphor might especially grate for those deeply concerned for nonhuman animals’ wellbeing (more about that in a moment as well).

Élevage Elected

And so, in my little blog post admiring the poetic Bermen, I chose instead, and nominate as a general replacement, the pretty word élevage. That’s French for husbandry or breeding or, less commonly, farming.

Aside from being prettier than husbandry, any negative connotations élevage may have (if any) for French ears will be lost on most English speakers.

It bears mentioning, though, that élevage also seems nicer than its French Canadian equivalent (according to the French Wikipedia entry for “Élevage“): vacherie. This has as its root vache, the French for cow as well as the basis for various commonly heard, minor vulgarities, particularly vachement. Minor, but apparently vulgar enough that I’ve heard parents tell their children not to say it. (For more on the word, see this entry at wwword in its series on untranslatable words: “Vachement.”)

And vacherie itself often means something like nastiness or dirty trick or cowardice. Maybe my French is just good enough for this aspect of vacherie to distract me. Or, rather, maybe my French isn’t good enough for me to miss the association entirely (more on this below, when… well, here’s a hint: semi-solid emulsions climb and soar o’er Jacob’s ladder). Either way, vacherie strikes me as a limp, mushy sort of word. It’s no élevage.

Husbandry Defended… Sort Of

I’ll start with the most common defense, which I think isn’t very good, then will briefly consider some potentially stronger ones.

Those defending husbandry tend to produce reasoning similar to that mentioned above for seminal. Chiefly, that current associations have nothing to do with the word itself—or, in particular, nothing to do with the word’s origins or original usage.

This argument strikes me as arbitrary. So many of the words we use today have molted early layers of meaning, grown new ones, half-molted and grown again, taking on unevenly distributed layers—thick and thin—of meaning. Many words are not understood in their original sense, nor do we expect them to be, nor would we want them to be, given the option (it’s usually not an option, particularly not in the longterm: language doesn’t work that way). Why should expect anything different for husbandry?

I won’t repeat here the more detailed considerations I work through in the above-linked “Seminal Is Sexist” post. But I will say this. It’s unreasonable to expect the majority of people to walk around with a classics major’s, etymologist’s, philologist’s, lexicographer’s, or all around logophile’s relationship with language. Each of us has our own interests and things to worry about.

But our understanding of language isn’t the problem. All free online dictionaries I’ve seen include word origins in their entries. There’s no dearth of such information. The problem is that learning about origins doesn’t impact how we experience a word right now. Even were we all to pay close attention to etymology, I don’t believe it would erase whatever effects, say, husbandry may (or, sure, may not) have on how we structure and interact with our world.*

[*With one exception, though it takes more than consulting a dictionary. I do wish philology got more general attention, even if just over a short timescale. A word’s cultural associations can significantly alter over as little as five to ten years, with many speakers apparently failing to notice the change, or at least easily getting away with pretending not to notice. An unfortunate effect of this failure is the (too-often-unquestioned) ascription of intentions and motives to past speakers that those speakers almost certainly did not have.]

The long and short of it is that husbandry sounds like husband and I don’t imagine the association—nor the images that association invites—fading anytime soon.

For one thing, those words are indeed related. To associate them is not like erroneously connecting noise to noisome, which have different origins and unrelated current-usage meanings. (Though I’ll leave it an open question as to whether we should worry about that similarity were, say, noisome to take on an unfortunate political dimension.)

Nor does husbandry strike me as a word that, no matter how often used, could ever fail to bring to mind husbands. Unlike, for instance, butterfly: do you imagine, on each hearing of that word, a fluttering glob of emulsified fat? And certainly not like December, which I imagine almost nobody notices, on any given encounter, actually refers to the tenth, rather than twelfth, month.**

[**Including those who claim—pretend?—to be annoyed when encountering decimate used with any quantity in mind but ten. Imagine how many trees and fossil fuels and editors’ time has been spared by the pedant’s inconsistency in this. Or maybe they see December as a lost cause, along with myriad other words, like myriad, whose archaic meaning is “ten thousand”].

Well, you might notice if English isn’t your first language. One of the joys of learning news languages is perceiving what native speakers often miss, and then beginning to perceive such things in your own language. There are surely more nuanced examples, but another that comes to mind is how often speakers of English miss that breakfast is short for “to break a fast.” (Interestingly, dinner means this as well, coming from disner in Old French, which comes from desjunar, which is close to the word that first made the association with fast-breaking conspicuous to me, the Spanish word desayunar. See more on this at the Online Etymology Dictionary‘s dinner entry.)

As our familiarity with a language deepens, we miss such steps and, as mentioned above, begin to think in semantic chunks. This thought brings us full circle. In his poem, “Self-Portrait at 28” (from his Actual Air collection), Bermen writes:

Why? I don’t have the time or intelligence
to make all the connections,
like my friend Gordon
(this is a true story)
who, having grown up in Braintree, Massachusetts,
had never pictured a brain snagged in a tree
until I brought it up.
He’d never broken the name down to its parts.1

It’s generally not a question of intelligence, however, but of familiarity and salience. For Bermen, as poet and lover of—or at least soul-bound servant to (or is it collaborator with?)—words, even the smallest and most hidden of word parts are, as a rule, salient. But such deliberate attentiveness isn’t required for English speakers to put the husband in husbandry.

In this respect, husbandry seems less like butterfly and more like dragonfly, or better yet, that word’s even more colorful synonym: devil’s darning-needle. Such forcefully defended associations simply aren’t captured by familiarity into chunks.

However, unlike those found in our dragonfly language, the internal relations between husband and husbandry are not charming. There is some old-world reminder in those relations, having to do not with farmers, but with a meaning of husband that is thankfully fading fast, at least in the world most immediate to me.

Defenders of husbandry might at this point say: What’s so bad about husbands? We use husband even though its archaic definition is “master of the house,” and for no regard of the complicated associations between its own component parts (i.e., house and bound; the latter of which, again relates not only to to bind, but to inhabit and to dwell).

First, it’s hopefully clear that this sort of argument shouldn’t come from someone who wishes the associations husbandry evokes to stop with the 14th century (or whenever it was best understood as farmer). Rather, the point here is that our associations with husbandry should change right along with those changes undergone by the word husband***.

[***The most instructive and explicit expression I can think of for the word husband‘s shifting association (from something like “master” or worse—”owner”—to “equal partner” comes from Gloria Steinem’s justification for marrying after previously having been strongly opposed to the institution:

I didn’t change. Marriage changed. We spent 30 years in the United States changing the marriage laws. If I had married when I was supposed to get married, I would have lost my name, my legal residence, my credit rating, many of my civil rights. That’s not true any more. It’s possible to make an equal marriage.2


It also highlights—quite rightly, and as I tried to do above in the “Husbandry in the Dictionary” section—the arbitrariness of the origins game: How far back to go? How finely to break apart the parts of these words?

At any rate, it strikes me very much that relating husband to something as earthy and generative and fundamentally life-sustaining as the breading and raising of animals (you know, livestock) and crops sparks a strong, perhaps even affirming, reminder of the otherwise fading (again, for many of us, myself included) older associations of the word husband. I suppose this still falls loosely under the primary objection of our language’s tendency to privilege the masculine point of view. But there you go.

Maybe there are other reasons to keep husbandry around. I can imagine a vegan or someone particularly worried about animal welfare wanting to hold onto it on the grounds that to replace it with a prettier word would amount to a rebranding that masks the brutal, patriarchal history that undergirds the cruel—especially in the last century or so—practices summoned up by the word.

In other words, prettifying the word could be seen as a marketing tactic for prettifying the concept and thus the practice. Indeed, the word élevage nearly seems to have in it both elevate and lavage, that latter being French for the noun wash.

Of course, there already exists a term dedicated to the worst of what goes on in the modern world of husbandry: factory farming. But nobody puts “factory farmed” on their packaging. Instead, they are able to announce, due to slack regulation loopholes, terms like cage free, which in practice turn out to be euphemisms for something closer to factory farming than to anything potentially suggested by a term like élevage.

So, again, adoption of élevage could prettify a practice more aptly represented by the ugly word husbandry.

(Maybe folks on board with this thinking would prefer vacherie to élevage after all.)

(Might vegans who’ve given it some thought have a problem with the dairy-inflected word butterfly?)

On the other other hand, animal lovers who ethically and lovingly practice animal husbandry, of whom I am sure there are many and should be many many more, might take issue with the above. They might wish to divorce themselves from the husband in husbandry, whether or not they agree that the best way to do this is to replace the word; I think of course the exchange would open up the most effective route.

Another bonus in that direction is that husbandry also means “conservation” (which corresponds to the verb to husband). Rebranding the utterance and symbols used to connote all the concepts that husbandry now struggles and perhaps fails to connote—due largely, I believe, to its unmissable family resemblance to husband—might not only help those concepts to the fore, but, by virtue of that fact, strengthen the attraction of the practice of husbandry for those whose characters—animal lover, conservationist—we’d most like to see involved in those practices. It might even encourage those already practicing them to cultivate in themselves those virtues as well (if they don’t already have them honed and deployed).

(That’s asking a tremendous lot of a word, I know. I’ll say something about why I think the effort still worthwhile below, under “Closing Thoughts.”)

Finally, I’ll note that, globally and historically, the relationship between gender divisions and farming is a staggeringly complicated one that not only has to do with whose putting their hands in the dirt, but also with who has access to land, seeds, animals, tools, and knowledge (the latter of which is not to be underestimated, and even just in itself poses complications: those who control and profit from land may not understand it, while those who labor in the dirt understand it may not profit off of it). And this will of course not only have dimensions of gender, but of class, race, ethnicity, culture.

A quick Google search reveals a daunting amount of websites, articles, and books for investigating the topic. Too many to begin listing them here. The point here is that the many faces of the topic cannot be captured in a single word. But a word can fail in reflecting that very fact, can misrepresent or distract. I find husbandry to be such a word.

Husbandry and Élevage in Other Languages

I considered some of the other languages I know well enough to make some sense of. That is, unfortunately, not many languages. This includes ganadería in Spanish (reminds of winner) and pecuária in Portuguese (reminds of sinner). I love those languages (as I do all languages, really), but those words don’t do it for me for reasons on which I won’t elaborate further (nor will I mine here the less common terms used in those language to talk about husbandry).

Then there’s the German Tierhaltung, which, as far as I can tell, transliterates to something like animal-attitude or animal-style or animal-approach. I like this one, in fact; uttering it is like climbing a gently angled aluminum ladder (make sure you hit the ‘g’ with a light clang). I enjoy the Italian word as well (especially with its article prefixed): L’allevamento; gorgeous.

But the French élevage is still my favorite. It’s short, pretty, easy to say, and says what it means without a lot of excess baggage.

Five languages down, 6,445 to go.

Closing Thoughts

Among the things about which to be concerned or outraged in the world—for starters, there are estimated to be at least 20 million slaves on Earth today, by which I mean captive persons forced into unpaid labor on pain of violence; an eye-widening introduction to this bizarrely, even intentionally, ignored (on all points along the political spectrum!) fact, is Kevin Bales’s Disposable People—I take it that language employment is not the most severe on the list. To sit here worrying about such a thing in a meandering blog post must count as high luxury, that list in mind.

But I can’t help but worry about words, and I can’t help but think that the choosing of élevage over husbandry is more than an aesthetic choice, but also a self-consciously political one. And I really do think it more than just a ‘first-world’ concern. This seems to me obvious. And observation of this fact is of course nothing new.

I seem to recall3, for instance, public injunctions from influential intellectuals in the era of the French revolution to officially refer to those enslaved in the French colonies not as slaves, but as unfree, in order to make explicit the hypocrisy of slavery practiced under an ethos, or at least motto, of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity.’

If words (and art) have power, which I think they do (as maybe the closest thing we have to ‘real magic’), we must take them—that power—seriously. Not to suggest that merely changing language is enough, an small effort that would likely amount to a gesture for letting oneself off the hook of taking on larger efforts (as I think making use of recycling bins and non-plastic straws often does, in their way). But it does seem a necessary condition of progress.

In an article I recently read in the Financial Times—Can Genderless Language Change the Way We Think?4by Laura Pitel, 8/5/20195—the point is made that, even though patriarchy has thrived within at least one culture in which the primary language—Turkish—lacks gendered language (pronouns included), the project of gender-neutralizing our language, which is to say our default worldview, is an important one.

Or, as Dennis Baron summarizes it in his newly published book, What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She: “Pronouns are political” (pp 6 and 39). And, for those who like to point out that the worldview in question was often meant and understood, at least on its surface, to be gender neutral (something that must often be true, otherwise I think brilliant feminist writers such as Simone de Beauvoir would have rejected it), Baron alerts us to the trust this requires us grant the whims of those whose interpretation count most:

To be sure, there have been defenders of the status quo who’ve simply invoked generic he, long approved by grammarians who insisted that such use of he includes she. Some nineteenth-century feminists capitalized on this inclusive he by arguing that, if he means “she,” then surely the voting laws, which always referred to voters as he, meant that women could vote. Unfortunately, judges and legislators—all of them men—disagreed. “Of course he is generic,” they mansplained, “but not for voting.”

It wasn’t just voting. There have been too many occasions where generic he didn’t seem generic. (p 5)

As with pronouns, so with language on the whole.

And this is why, at least for my post on Bermen’s lyrics, I choose the word élevage over husbandry. Not just to communicate a concept or idea, but to do so with an attractive word that additionally makes the very point in practice that I was trying spell out: we should be mindful of our words. I assume, or hope, that it can’t hurt to go beyond mindful: that it helps more than hurts that the additional, supererogatorily conveyed idea in this particular instance is of the political.

Though, as I’ve already alluded to above, I suppose mine could be seen as an effort to erase the political by removing the masculine or maleness or patriarchy, the local history, from husbandry. Yes, I think that is the aim. And then what?

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Further Reading


  1. “Self-Portrait at 28,” Actual Air (1999, Drag City; originally Open City Books)
  2. From “Still Talking, Writing and Connecting” (25 March 2007) by Zubeida Mustafa at Dawn magazine.
  3. Either in CLR James’s classic history of slave revolt in Haiti, The Black Jacobins, or in one of the related texts discussed in a series of lectures I attended on that book.

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