What if “vegan” was pronounced “wejan”?

I know it sounds like an utterly ridiculous question, but allow me to explain.

I personally chose a vegan lifestyle back in 1995, when I was 19 years old and feeling right at home in my post-high-school discovery of the world of being a hippy. I exchanged my baseball hat for long hair and then dreads and transformed my childhood desire to make tons of money to a newfound mission to save the world. After one too many times walking through a supermarket and seeing a slab of chopped meat sitting on a Styrofoam plate, wrapped in plastic and slapped with a price tag, realizing the intense disconnect between the life and treatment of the animal and the consumer of its meat, I decided to become a vegetarian. A year later, I came to understand that the egg and dairy industries were not much better than the meat industry, if at all, and I decided to go all the way.

I became a vegan.

Back then, vegans were like the ultimate hippies. The softest, the kindest, the sweetest. The top of the hippy hierarchy. Like king and queen hippies.

The first vegan I ever met was in college at a housing and food co-op I was part of. He had John Lennon-style eye glasses and he baked muffins. Vegan muffins, of course. He was the first non-grandma I ever met who baked muffins. And, as his vegan muffins baked quietly in the oven, he would sit on a comfy couch (second-hand, non-leather, that was bought at The Salvation Army store) and read poetry. He was so cool. He became my hero. He was an environmental studies major (which I eventually became as well) and explained his personal lifestyle choices as a part of his role in healing our wounded world. Such a nice guy. Such a nice vegan.

But something happened at some point in the past 20 years or so. I don’t really know how, when, where or why, but something shifted. Vegans seemed to become more intense. Hardcore. Militant. Even, at times, a bit scary. The colorful clothing of the vegans I first came to know morphed into lots of black, lots of boots, and lots of tattoos. Let me say that again: Lots of tattoos.

So, maybe I’m generalizing a bit more than I should. Maybe I’m really just talking about the vegans in Portland, OR. (Sorry vegans in Portland, OR).

First off, let me make it very clear that there is nothing wrong with anyone who wears lots of black and boots and tattoos (especially if they’re my vegan brothers and sisters). They are who they are and I love them no less than my vegan friend from college, George, who looked like a walking rainbow floating on a cloud with his big red beard, wide make-your-day smile and softer than silence voice.

The point I am trying to make is that the typical image of a vegan today and back then seems to have changed. Of course, this is not a 100% truth. (Very little in our world is). But it’s an observation that I have made over the years, and maybe others have noticed as well.

So the question you might be asking yourself at this point is: So what? What’s the big deal and what point are you trying to make here?

Here’s the point I want to make:

The word “vegan” is a tough word. It sounds tough. Much tougher than the word “vegetarian”, which conjures up an image of someone who is nice enough to care about the world and do something about it, but is not so insane as to give up eating ice cream and chocolate croissants.

Think of a vegan, and if you’re not picturing Ellen DeGeneres, you might be picturing an anarchist who literally wants to kill anyone who eats meat (kind of defeats the point, I know). Am I right?

Many people associate vegans and veganism with extremism. With going too far. With someone who wants to make too big of a point too much of the time. Judging you for every burger you savor or bagel with cream cheese you enjoy. Being around vegans often make non-vegans apologetic for their gastronomic choices, or defensive about their dietary choices.

Let’s be honest, there’s something about vegans that makes people a little uncomfortable, sometimes even annoyed. To the point, where most people are simply turned off by vegans and the vegan movement. Not for them. Never.

Yes, the surveys and the statistics tell us that the number of vegans in America, in Israel, and in the world is growing. But stop and ask yourself: how many vegans do you know? How many do you see on a regular basis or hang out with? Most people don’t have a single vegan friend. Even I, as a vegan, have very, very few.

Why is that??

I am sure there are many reasons. Even good ones. But I want to offer one that probably no one else ever thought of.

The word “vegan” itself.

If you’re going to stop eating all animal products you’re eventually going to have to be called or call yourself a “vegan”. But it’s a tough sounding name. Say it out loud. It’s got an intense ring to it. If you were going to make a motion to go along with the word “vegan”, you probably wouldn’t do a graceful ballet twirl, but rather pump your fist in the air in defiance of the “Man” and the “System”. But not everyone relates to that or is comfortable with that kind of public display or attention.

My big epiphany in thinking about this (and as you can tell, I’ve thought a lot about this) is that this all makes perfect sense on a linguistic level.

Here’s why:

The word “vegan” has two hard consonants: the “v” and the “g”. This short, easy-to-say, two-syllable word has two hard sounding consonants. One for each syllable. There’s nothing soft-sounding about it. No matter how nice you say it or how many flowers are in your hair when you do, the “v” and the “g” give the word “vegan” an attitude.

So, I’m no marketing expert, but maybe if the vegans of the world want to attract more people to their way of life, maybe, just maybe, they, we, should come up not with a different name, but with an alternative way of pronouncing the name.

Borrowing from the pronunciation of other languages (I’m not sure which ones, but I;m sure they exist), we could change the “ve-” to a “we-” sound and the “-gan” to a “-jan” sound (as in the word “Dijon”) and, walla! The word vegan can now be pronounced as “wejan”!

Wejan.

Wejan.

Wejan!

Try it out.

Say it.

A few times.

Out loud.

Right now.

How does it sound?

How does it feel?

Doesn’t it seem softer?

Nicer?

More appealing?

Like a word from a French cooking show or spoken by a cute old lady living in a quaint little village in the Swiss Alps?

Doesn’t it make you want to put down your yogurt drink and make yourself a smoothie with soy or rice milk instead? Or run out and buy some tofu or seitan to grill at your next big BBQ?

Hmm. Maybe it’s all in the name.

Maybe deep inside more people, even many more people, really do want to stop supporting the pain and suffering caused daily to millions of animals around the world by our mechanized, industrialized, stripped-of-feeling-and-concern-for-non-human-life meat and dairy system that we humans created only a few decades ago so that we can eat as much meat as possible at the lowest cost possible, and never have to actually smell or see the process that allows it to be.

Maybe much of the world does really care about the impact their eating habits have on other animals, other humans and the global ecosystem.

Maybe they really do want to become vegan, but they just don’t want to…be…called…a…vegan.

But maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t mind being called a “wejan”.

That sounds nice, right?

That sounds sophisticated, cultured, classy and smart. (Not that vegans are not these things…don’t get me wrong.)

This could open up the floodgates, my friends, to millions and millions of more people choosing to return to the original diet intended for humankind (for more on that, check out another blog of mine: “Adam and Eve Were Vegan”).

So starting now, let’s give people who give up eating animal products a choice of how they want to be called.

They could be called a vegan.

Or they could be called a wejan.

Whatever suits their personality, floats their boat, or speaks their mind.

As for me, I feel a connection with both. But for now, you can call me the world’s first wejan! Who’s in with me??

About the Author
Akiva Gersh is the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (www.becomingisraeli.com), a compilation of blogs and essays that speak of the inspiring and the sometimes wacky and crazy experience of making aliyah. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. He teaches Jewish history at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Hod HaSharon. He is also a musician and in 2010 formed Holy Land Spirit, an uplifting and spiritual musical experience for Christian groups visiting Israel.
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