2 September 2012

Word for thought: harvest

I was brought up with the word 'harvest'. After spending my youth in a small market town, there is nothing unusual about the word as part of my vocabulary.  Farmers 'harvest' the wheat or barley and then the community celebrates the 'harvest festival'. Job done.

However, a couple of recent examples of usage have started a train of thought in my mind. The first of these occurrences was on the coast in Japan, while I was admiring the local oyster nets. A young voice behind me asked what those people were doing. A man, whom I assume to be the father, replied that they were "harvesting the oysters".

Something did not ring true with me. Yes, we 'harvest' grain in the fields, but don't we usually 'catch' fish? Should we categorise oysters as closer to fish or closer to arable crops? Do we 'harvest' eggs, or chickens, or sheep?

It occurred to me that our usage of the word might be something to do with our individual world view. If we 'catch' fish or chickens, then do we somehow acknowledge that there is an instinct in them that does not want to be caught? We at least somehow acknowledge that we are not in complete control, and that we do not have absolute rights to the product. On the other hand, something that is, perhaps, not sentient, and that we have cultivated for our own purposes, can certainly be harvested.

As far as I am concerned, this still leaves a grey area surrounding oysters and eggs. A neutral word would be 'collect' or 'gather'. I have heard many people talk about 'gathering' mushrooms. We can carry out such an action in the wild, without the same overtone of dominion over the natural world.

I was fairly content with this analysis, to the extent that I was starting to think that I was being over-sensitive.  Sure, if we collect oysters in an oyster farm, then that is a form of harvesting. Maybe salmon in a salmon farm can be harvested, too.

At this point, though, I came across the second usage of the word to perturb my sense of vocabulary. On this occasion it was a news article referring to the 'harvest' of human organs.

Taking my prior thought process into account, I felt a deep discomfort about accepting this phraseology. Even just using the word in this context seems to suggest that human organs might be something that we could have the right to collect, en masse, as a type of crop.

This has pushed me back to my original position.  I feel that the use of the word 'harvest' reflects a philosophy about what we have a right to control and collect.  Vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores may possibly use the word differently with different subjects. That would be a collocation study for the future.

harvest, n. (2) "the season's yield or crop", v.tr. (1a) "gather as a harvest"
(Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 2nd ed. revised, 2002)

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