If someone called you an animal, you’d probably be insulted. But you probably wouldn’t mind at all if a biologist classified you as belonging to the animal kingdom.
Like many words, animal has multiple meanings, or senses, and in everyday life we use context to determine which sense is intended. In a dictionary, each sense is defined separately. The biological, “animal kingdom” sense is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “Any of numerous multicellular eukaryotic organisms of the kingdom Metazoa (or Animalia) that ingest food rather than manufacturing it themselves and are usually able to move about during at least part of their life cycle. Sponges, jellyfishes, flatworms, mollusks, arthropods, and vertebrates are animals.” This sense distinguishes animals (including us humans) from other forms of life: plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria. Animal has been used this way in English since at least the Middle Ages; even before Darwin, people realized that they had much in common with other living, breathing, moving creatures.
“An animal got into the house!” This sentence most likely conjures up the image of a squirrel or a raccoon, not a burglar or any other human. This sense of animal is defined as “An animal organism other than a human, especially a mammal.” Even though we humans recognize our similarity to other creatures, we often differentiate ourselves from them, contending that we are distinctive because we think, or speak, or cook, or make tools, or have a soul. And at the other end of the scale, we often don’t refer to organisms that are really small (ants) or have wings (birds) or lack a backbone (oysters) as animals.
“The guards in the prison camp were animals.” Here, the “animals” are humans, but a subset of humans: those who are viewed as not displaying admirable traits such as morality and restraint that are often supposed to be unique to humans. This sense is defined as “A person who behaves in a bestial or brutish manner.” A related sense reads, “A human considered with respect to his or her physical nature, as opposed to rational or spiritual nature.” This sense is associated with the idea that all humans have two distinct parts: a material part that performs bodily functions like eating and drinking, and an immaterial part that consists of the mind and/or the soul.
And finally, you might say, “A jazz musician is a different sort of animal altogether.” We define this sense as “A person with a specified aptitude or set of interests.” Here, “animal” refers to humans in general, with a subset (in this case, jazz musicians) called out as having some special attributes.
So the next time someone calls you an animal, you might reply, “An animal—could you kindly tell me which sense of animal you have in mind?”
Thank you for visiting the American Heritage Dictionary at ahdictionary.com!