Polar Bear Cubs


‘I don’t like using the word “cute” but that is cute!’:
How ‘cute’ is applied to animals in the English language

1. Evidence from our corpus of current British English

by Alison Sealey

When people hear what our project is about, one of the things they often comment on is the difference in attitudes towards those animals that are regarded as ‘cute’ and those that are not. This is evident in these comments from our focus group with 18 – 23 year-olds:

I’m not sure whether people just think some animals are cute and some are just, you know, just bad

What I find most interesting is like the way animals are seen as cute and cool, compared to things like crocodiles

I looked at our data to find out how ‘cute’ is used in our collection of texts about animals, including the interviews and focus groups.

lion_cub_africaOne thing I found is that people are aware that this description is sometimes frowned on. The speaker quoted in the title above is a presenter on a TV broadcast (Wild Burma), while one of our interviewees, who works in the Education Centre attached to an organic farm, reflected on her own language as she talked about intensive breeding to create dogs with particular features:

Well, yes I will use the word, yeah like cute, but is it? And for whose benefit? Certainly not the animal’s

Another pattern I found is that cute and cuddly often occur together, suggesting that some aspect of the animals’ visual appearance elicits the desire to hold or embrace it. Sometimes this visual factor is evident in the use of the verb look:

Perhaps this will subside when he is no longer a puppy and not looking so cute
(Mass observation data, about a dog)

She looked really cute because she was really small and had massive eyes
(Mass observation data, about a cat)

Derek the ginger moggie looked cute for the cameras
(News story, about a cat)

It is also noticeable that the adjective cute is often preceded in our data by ‘boosters’, such as so, really, very, unimaginably and incredibly, almost as though the response to animals’ ‘cuteness’ is irresistible.

Which animals are described as cute?

In our data, they include felines (‘cat’, ‘kittens’, ‘lions’), as well as ‘otters’ and ‘bears’, and ‘rabbits and baby animals generally’. But it’s not always animals as whole beings that are described as cute:

Extract modifies animal
The ears on the dumbo octopus (cute name!) – are they really fins? name octopus
An adorable video and many a cute image helped this delightful duo to earn international fame image puppy and kitten
don’t be fooled by the cute faces faces lions
It’s hard to resist a cute face face kitten
They are playing. It is not just a cute thing. It is a really important thing. It is bonding. playing otter pups
try not to let him see you find his antics cute and amusing. antics dog

In short, our data suggests that some animals are thought of as being or looking ‘cute’, or possessing  ‘cute’ features – even if only while they are young. At the same time, some speakers show awareness that responding to these attributes may be a little unfair, both to the animals they do think of in this way and to those they don’t.

2. Evidence of changes over time from a Times newspaper corpus

by Emma McClaughlin

My research for my PhD reveals that animals described as cute or attractive today may not always have been thought of in this way.  I found that perceptions of cuteness and visual appeal are subject to change over time.  In a collection of news texts (articles and readers’ letters) about squirrels, gathered from The Times newspaper, I found a reversal in the way red squirrels are described from the 1880s to the 2000s.

Today the red squirrel is protected by law (Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981) and is the subject of a number of conservation and restoration projects across the country.  Although it may be surprising now, between the 1880s and the 1920s, the red squirrel was not described as cute or visually attractive in news texts.  At this time, red squirrels were seen as destructive animals in need of culling and they were killed in large numbers as woodland ‘pests’.


It was after the grey squirrel became an established species (it was introduced by the Victorians in 1876) that the perception of Britain’s native red squirrel changed.  With the numbers of red squirrels declining – and with the grey squirrel providing a contrast – the more familiar notion of the red squirrel as a species under threat emerged.  This coincides with a change in the ways in which red squirrels are described in news texts.  From the 1920s to the 2000s, descriptions of these animals often mention their appeal, using positive adjectives, as the following extracts show. The final example, from 2004, is the first to use ‘cute’ explicitly, once again linking this description with feline faces.

Year Extract
1921 these pests [grey squirrels]… have none of the endearing qualities of our native, fascinating little rodent [red squirrels].
1939 almost at once our beautiful little native squirrels began to disappear
1970 This alien invader has also eliminated over most of the country that far more attractive native mammal, the red squirrel.
2004 The shy reds with their cuter, more pussycat-like features, were not perceived as a threat—but the greys even then, with their fierce, rat-like physiognomy, were bad news.

The Times

On the rare occasion that something negative is written about the red squirrel after the 1920s, it is qualified, as this extract from The Times in 1953 shows:

The truth is that the red squirrel is a little villain, too, but so handsome that most people are glad to see him.

Such changes in perception can reflect, or direct, a change in human treatment of animals.  In sum, today the red squirrel is classified as in need of protection and its visual appeal is mentioned in news texts discussing the species’ decline.  In the past, when the red squirrel was considered to be a pest, no mention was made in news articles of its attractive features or ‘cuteness’.



“I’m not really asleep” At the British Wildlife Centre, Newchapel, Surrey, a young fox relaxes in the late winter hazy sunshine. Taken by Peter Trimming.

‘An urban fox is a bushy-tailed James Dean, living fast and dying young’:[1] Representations of Foxes in UK discourse

by Chris Pak and Alison Sealey

This is the first in a series of short posts reporting some of the initial findings from our analysis of the corpus we have collected of discourse about animals. For this piece, we have explored how people talk and write about one particular animal – the fox.

Our data includes a range of genres of writing and speech from the UK, generated in the period 1995-2015, including news reports, scientific journal articles, legislation, transcripts of broadcasts, campaign literature, promotional food websites, elicited data on the topic of animals, transcripts of interviews with producers of language about animals, and transcripts of focus groups with members of the public. We take an approach known as corpus assisted discourse analysis, and we make use of specialised computer software to conduct analyses of large numbers of texts. We have used AntConc[2] and SketchEngine[3] to produce the results that follow.

Flo the Fox Flo, a vixen (Vulpes vulpes), has been at the British Wildlife Centre since late 2009. She was rescued, and hand-reared, before arriving here, after attempts to return her to the wild had failed. Seen, here, with one of the Keepers; Flo produced her first litter of four cubs, earlier this year. Taken by Peter Trimming.

Flo the Fox
Flo, a vixen (Vulpes vulpes), has been at the British Wildlife Centre since late 2009. She was rescued, and hand-reared, before arriving here, after attempts to return her to the wild had failed. Seen, here, with one of the Keepers; Flo produced her first litter of four cubs, earlier this year. Taken by Peter Trimming.

We looked at seven of our datasets, or ‘sub-corpora’, and explored the words that frequently co-occur with any of these words: fox, foxes, vixen, and vixens. We noted that, of the words that ‘collocate’ (or co-occur) with these search terms, several denote other animals, or are superordinate terms for animals. Each of the sub-corpora associates a different set of animal names with fox, foxes, vixen, or vixens, although there are some that appear across several of these sub-corpora, including (in descending order of frequency): “cub(s)”, dog(s)”, animal(s)”, rabbit(s)”, deer, hare(s)”, badger(s)”, bird(s)”, mink(s)”, hound(s)”, terrier(s)”, wolf/wolves, coyote(s)”, raccoon(s)”, squirrel(s)”, bear(s)”, cat(s)”, chicken(s)”, game, horse(s)”, rat(s)”, species, stoat(s)”, wildlife, bat(s)”, and “livestock”. In our campaign literature, the words for over 40 different animals are identified as statistically significant[4] collocates of fox. The most prominent of these are hounds (18 occurrences), rabbit (18), cubs (10), mink (10), badger (7) and dogs (5). In the scientific journal articles, terrier (7), stoat (6), dog (6) and dogs (5), and deer (5) are frequent collocates of fox. In due course we shall explore these associations in more depth.

Using SketchEngine, we were able to produce this word-cloud of words that are similar to fox(es) in terms of their grammatical and collocational behaviour:

Fox Wordcloud

Terms that specify a species or type of fox are also frequent. Occurring primarily in the sub-corpus of scientific journals, but also in that of campaigning literature, these are arctic, desert, wild, silver, blue, grey and red. Another important way of classifying foxes appears in the news media sub-corpus, which includes 19 examples of the term urban fox. These words relate to geographical and visual criteria for classifying these creatures, which suggests that the way we give names to different types of foxes is shaped primarily by our sense of sight.

Although, unsurprisingly, there are few occurrences of words that characterise foxes in terms of what we can loosely refer to as “character” or “personality” in the scientific journals, it is this sub-corpus that contains the only use of the adjectival modifier of fox, opportunistic, in the phrase ‘The opportunistic fox’, which, we learn, is considered a good indicator species of infections in (Norwegian) wildlife by the various species of the roundworm Trichinella. Nevertheless, foxes are also described elsewhere as opportunistic feeders (campaign) and, like the leopard or bear, opportunistic predators (broadcasts).


At the British Wildlife Centre, Newchapel, Surrey, the fox sits in his enclosure; looking, listening, smelling the air. Taken by Peter Trimming.

Opportunistic could be seen as an objective descriptor, when scientists report on the animals’ feeding behaviour. However, although it collocates with words from a biological domain (e.g. infection, pathogenic) even in less specialised discourse, its negative connotations are very evident in a general corpus.[5] The only noun so described here when the adjective is used predicatively is burglary/ies. Attributively, the nouns frequently modified by this adjective include thief, scavenger, burglar, predator, looting, looter, banditry, criminality, criminal and intruder. The adjectives found linked with opportunistic, (by and or or) include: unprincipled, self-serving, venal, talentless, amoral, cynical, power-hungry, exploit(at)ive, craven, insincere, spineless, hypocritical, cowardly, manipulative and predatory. And opportunistic is itself modified by shamelessly, blatantly, overly and largely. Thus although foxes may not be explicitly described in these negative terms, it is with a range of morally evaluative words that opportunistic is linked in many kinds of discourse.

Foxes are also crafty, wily and one of the canniest of predators (all one occurrence in the broadcasts sub-corpus). It is in the broadcasts sub-corpus that an instance of wary is associated with foxes, but on further investigation this refers to a contrast between the traits of urban and country foxes: ‘While country foxes grow up to be wary of humans, these little fellas are likely to be as brash, bold and confident as their parents’. A prominent theme in the broadcasts sub-corpus is a change of behaviour in foxes: both changed and behaviour, in fact, appear as statistically significant collocates of foxes.

When it comes to vixen, the campaign sub-corpus includes one instance of a positive visual descriptor:  ‘the beautiful vixen alive in the snare’. It is interesting that, in all the sub-corpora bar the Twitter sub-corpus, beautiful collocates only with vixen, and only once. There are other characterisations of fox(es) or vixen(s) in the corpus, but it is those described above that are identified as specific to the way foxes are written and talked about in a range of genres, using the MI statistical measure with AntConc for identifying collocation.

Engraving of a common red fox by J. G. Keulemans in Mivart, St. George Jackson - Dogs, jackals, wolves, and foxes: a monograph of the Canidae, 1890

Engraving of a common red fox by J. G. Keulemans in Mivart, St. George Jackson – Dogs, jackals, wolves, and foxes: a monograph of the Canidae, 1890

When it comes to actions performed upon or by fox(es), there are many occurrences of hunt(ing), some of which denote the actions of the foxes themselves, while others allude to foxes being hunted. In the broadcasts sub-corpus, foxes are referred to as hungry when they are hunting, while the campaign sub-corpus associates hunt(ing), kill(ing/ed), shooting, snare and snaring, trap(ped), and capture with actions performed upon foxes. Farming is also associated with fox(es) in the campaign corpus. Killings and farmed are also associated with fox in the journals sub-corpus, while hunting and blood-sports appear in the elicited writing about animals (MO-Data). In this sub-corpus, hunting and (hare) coursing are often mentioned together, while in the news sub-corpus culling, flush and hounding are also statistically significant. In the Twitter sub-corpus, fox-hunting is frequently associated with badger-culling and are actively advocated against.

These insights into the ways people talk and write about foxes in a variety of genres only scratch the surface of how foxes are represented in a range of types of discourse. Our project will delve into the imagined relationships between foxes and other animals, as well as the multiple ways people orient themselves toward foxes. The analysis above identifies routes that this enquiry may be expected to take in the coming year, but it by no means represents a comprehensive picture of discourse about foxes, let alone about other animals, that we are continuing to uncover and explore in greater depth.

You can also sign up on our Facebook page <https://www.facebook.com/PeopleProductsPestsPets> and on Twitter <https://twitter.com/DiscourseAnimal?lang=en-gb> for updates about the project.

Use this reference when citing this article: Pak, C. and Sealey, A. (2015) ‘An urban fox is a bushy-tailed James Dean, living fast and dying young’: representations of foxes in UK discourse. ‘People’, ‘products’, ‘pests’ and ‘pets’: the discursive representation of animals. Available at https://animaldiscourse.wordpress.com/?page_id=459.

Date posted: 5th October 2015

The “‘People’, ‘products’, ‘pests’ and ‘pets’: the discursive representation of animals” project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, rpg 2013 063.

© Chris Pak and Alison Sealey 2015

[1] Nature of Britain with Alan Titchmarsh.

[2] Anthony, L. (2014). AntConc (Version 3.4.4) [Computer Software]. Tokyo, Japan: Waseda University. Available from http://www.laurenceanthony.net/.

[3] Kilgarriff, Adam, et al. “The Sketch Engine: ten years on.” In Lexicography (2014): 1–30. <http://www.sketchengine.co.uk>.

[4] Statistical significance is calculated by the software we are using. In this case, we set a ‘Mutual Information’ (MI) score of 3 or higher. For details see Stubbs, M. ‘Collocations and Semantic Profiles: On the Cause of the Trouble with Quantitative Studies.’ Functions of Language 2.1 (1995). Available from https://www.uni-trier.de/fileadmin/fb2/ANG/Linguistik/Stubbs/stubbs-1995-cause-trouble.pdf.

[5] Data from the EnTenTen corpus of approximately 13 billion words, using the Word Sketch function in Sketch Engine.

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