Therians who have been around for many years already know the issues I’m pointing out, but this should be useful to others.
What you must always remember about labels is that they are terms supposed to make things easier. They are words summing up a concept and they should be understood by everybody. A label that people won’t use, that everybody misunderstand, or that complicates the matter has no sense. Also, a label is only a label. It makes things simple, but it also is less accurate than reality. As an example the term “therianthropy” is about being animal inside, but no therian experiences therianthropy in the exact same way. You can’t assume that every therian, contherian, hybrid, etc is the same as others therians, contherians, hybrids and so on. You have to remember that because of this, words don’t exactly mean the same for everybody. To avoid misunderstanding, be very careful when using labels and make sure of what the person you’re talking with means. A simple example is the fact that while animal-people use “were” and “therianthrope” for the same thing, many furries in the furry fandom use “were” to refer to werewolves in art, movies and such as, or concerning anthropomorphic characters that have a more feral look (this is one of the reason the term has been used less and less among therianthropes). Sometimes people take over a word and use it in their own way, creating a different meaning – and possible confusion.
It may sound arbitrary, but… please don’t use poser-ish labels. Don’t use White Wolf terms to then complain about people who assume you are a roleplayer. Perhaps you think some of these words perfectly express what you are, but a label has to be understood by everybody, and while you may think “this is what I am, I can’t say it in another way”, most of people will think “this guy is talking about roleplay, he’s not animal”, period. Don’t use titles such as lord, master, alpha; the terrible combination “I’m Lord Darkmoonwolf and I’m the alpha of a real pack of garous” won’t make people respect you, it will make them shake their heads, laugh or become hostile. Avoid using the words “lycanthrope” and “lycan” when you can use “therianthrope”, because lycanthropy is used as a clinical term and lycan has become an Underworld (=fiction) reference. In certain contexts it might work, but most of the time these terms will make others consider your therianthropy as fiction, like the term you used to describe it, and not as a valid identity. Therianthropy is reality, it’s a real thing, not roleplay. While some forums might accept these terms, I know no serious therian who would call themselves alpha, lord, or garou. Also, please, don’t capitalize therian-related words, it’s not holy or whatever.
Ultimately it’s a good thing to avoid using labels when you can. What matter is to make sense, not to cut short. While m-shift or even p-shift may be known by most of the community, it’s not always the case for newcomers, and I’m not even talking about the numerous obscure types of shifts listed on certain websites. Frankly, you don’t need one term per sub-category of shift. They actually are all mental as they happen “in your head” (where your senses are processed). You may want to make a distinction between mental, dream and phantom shift, but most types (such as “perception”) fall under the “mental” category and other labels are pompous and confusing. Using so many labels doesn’t make anyone seem smarter, it only makes them sound obsessed with jargon.
As a side note: not all therians are shifters. Refering to shifts as something necessary to be a therian can be oppressing for others; similarly, refering to animal-people as “shifters” render non-shifting therians invisible. In the same vein: some people use the word “contherianthropy” if their experience of animality is unchanging (they are totally shiftless). If you experience variations in the intensity of your animality but feel like using the word because half of the definition fits… no. Please don’t. You’re going to make the word meaningless because you shouldn’t use it unless the whole definition fits. See the Contherianthropy FAQ for more informations. Think about what implies a term before using it, ponder about the meaning of “shift”, “contherian” and any word you use. Any change in animality, in one’s animality intensity, is a shift, you can’t both have an unchanging animality and experience variation in its intensity, because that’s pretty much the opposite. Think about what you experience, and if you find no label that fits, it’s not important. Don’t appropriate words that don’t fit.
There always is a logic behind a word, there should be some thought put into it. As an example many people consider hybrids are polyweres, and that it’s all about having several weresides. It’s not exactly the case. A polywere does have multiple theriosides, such as a therian whose sides are wolf and leopard; he may shift into a wolf, or into a leopard, or perhaps both at once. However they are distinct from each other. The situation is totally different for a wolf/leopard hybrid, because an hybrid has only one side: the result of wolf and leopard mixed up together. It is one single creature which has the characteristics of both animals. One single side. Therefore an hybrid doesn’t have multiple animal sides, although for the sake of simplicity you can say he has several sides to mean he has several components. But they aren’t distinct theriotypes. An hybrid’s inner self is a blend, you would consider the wolf/leopard mix as one single creature.
Do not use “therianism”, “therianthropism” and any other kind of “isms” instead of “therianthropy”. “Therianthropism” and “therianism” are incorrect and it gets on many therians’ nerves to see it because it is misleading about what therianthropy is: “isms” are used to convey an idea of ideology or belief, while therianthropy is not a religion or doctrine you can adopt and practice. Therianthropy is not a belief, it is a non-temporary state of being (if you stop believing in therianthropes, the animal experience and sensations are still there) so it isn’t etymologically right. Therianthropy is not a cult, doctrine or set of tenets. Don’t misuse words, the term “therianthrope” describes what you are, not what you believe in.
A recent issue brought on forums concerns the words “wereside” and “phenotype” [2004]. Indeed, a few newcomers pointed out the fact that the “were” root means “human”, which would mean “wereside” has no sense; on top of that “phenotype” has a very different meaning from its original one (in scientific fields) and is just as misleading. They suggested a better word concerning one’s animal side and then “theriotype” came out.
Some new labels may be useful. However more often than not, they don’t exist for their linguistic usefulness but for their social value. For exemple, one day some people got insecure over the “contherianthropy” discussions as the latter was getting more and more accepted, so they created a word for all the therianthropes who always feel animal inside while experiencing changes in intensity from more animalish to less animalish. Thus “syntherianthropy” came out (it has been misspelled as “suntherianthropy”, whereas the greek “u” turns into a “y” in our languages, such as in “synthesis”) [Discussions: late 2004 – early 2005]. So what they did was creating a label for… the majority, since the specific experience they described was that of most therians at the time. The reason behind the creation of the word was not to improve communication, but about satisfying some people’s need of having a fancy term, seemingly validating better their experience at the time it was becoming less of a prescribed norm and more of one of the many variations of therianthropy. This is regretable.
This leads to an important point: creating more labels requires that the “positive repercussions” really justify the “negative side effects”. Ultimately we don’t need more labels; we don’t need more confusion. What we need for the moment is to clear up things concerning the existing labels. The “let’s create labels!!” trend is a dangerous one, and while newcomers may have the feeling that some new words are necessary, as everybody they should pay attention to all the consequences, and should be aware of all the issues raised before taking any decision. Anyway people are free to use the terms they want, and if the suggestions they make are good, it will spread in the community easily (though confusion may still happen). In case it isn’t clear enough, what I explain in this essay comes from my experience and various discussions we’ve had in the community, I am not forcing people to agree. What I want is that people think about it, especially if they haven’t spent yet more than a few years on forums (and the “werecommunity” does not consist in a single site or two).
The “pick’n’choose” attitude is a common trap for many newcomers when they arrive in the community and learn about its terminology. It’s hard to put words on what we experience and feel, and therianthropes (more especially newbies) may feel the need to find and use every word they can apply to their therianthropy in order to make people understand what they are – and possibly to “fit in”, or because it is relieving to finally find terms to describe what you are. Many will apply to them terms that doesn’t really fit because they find nothing else and they are convinced they need these labels (to be understood, accepted, and more “were”). They may rush, they read one definition about a word and think it is the ultimate Truth – whereas some definitions they read are wrong or inaccurate. Perhaps it’s because of the fact I have a “literary” scholar background, that I had “too much” philosophy, French and languages courses, but I’m finicky when it comes to words. My English is not perfect and I work on that. If everybody could make the effort to use terms correctly, it would fix a lot of misunderstandings in the werecommunity. Don’t overuse labels. Explore what you are, soulsearch, think about it, and think about meaning, so you can then use some of these terms to sum up what you are if there is no other way for people to understand it. It doesn’t matter if you have no labels to refer to what you are at first, and it actually doesn’t matter at all.
Remember that we don’t really need labels. Labels don’t define our self. Trying to fit into the mold of a word won’t help you. A label is not your identity itself; it’s just a sign above your head to indicate briefly something relevant to your identity. If people criticize the spelling on your sign, or if they believe your sign is confusing or unwarranted, it is an opinion about the sign, not people attacking your identity. Last but not least, you must remember that therianthropes aren’t therianthropes from the moment they found this label. They had been animal-people all along; finding a word to describe this did not induce their experience of animality. You are an animal-person because you are animal inside, not because you found a community made of people similar to you who use fancy words. Going deeper into your personal therianthropy (and self-discovery process in general) isn’t about collecting labels, but about learning more about who and what you are – and understanding it.