The names of things are important. Sometimes people come up with two different terms to describe the same thing and the terms rattle around in your head, biting and scratching at each other’s eyes, until one of them defeats the other and takes full control of your brain.
There is this thing happening to the planet. People are burning a lot of fuel, which is changing the atmosphere, which is driving the temperature up, which could eventually make Earth an unfriendly place for humans. Crops may fail, societies may collapse, etc. If we don’t stop burning so much fuel, this thing — which we call either “global warming” or “climate change” — is going to get worse, probably a lot worse, probably very fast.
Neither of these terms really conveys the urgency of the situation. “Global warming” sounds cozy, like a nice cup of hot cocoa in the dead of winter. “Climate change” has the opposite problem: It sounds cold and clinical. “Change from what into what? Maybe the new climate will be better!” The new climate will not be better.
But what would we suggest instead? Global clusterfuck? Climate disaster? No, those aren’t right either.
Coming up with a short name for a complicated thing is not easy to do, even when your goal is to be accurate. That’s one reason to pay attention to names. Another is that the people who name things aren’t always trying to be accurate.
An extremist is a person — usually a violent one, but not necessarily — who takes an idea really really far (from where you take the same idea).
Nobody ever mentions the second part — that extremists are extreme only relative to what you think and do — but it’s a necessary consequence of the definition of the word. “Extreme” is meaningless unless you have something to compare it to, and in the case of “extremists,” what you’re comparing them to is yourself.
Would I do this thing? Would anyone I like do this thing? What about people I don’t like, but might dislike less than I dislike people who do this thing? No? None of us? Good. Then let’s do something about those extremists.
A toxin is something that can kill you or make you very sick or stop your cells from working the way they’re supposed to. It’s toxic. That’s why they call it a toxin. Some examples of toxins are: botulinum, diphtheria, tetanospasmin, and anthrax.
Here’s something people say about toxins: “They are building up in your body and the only way to get rid of them is to drink lemonade with cayenne pepper in it! Or visit a sauna! Or stop eating wheat!” This is a scary thing to say.
When people say scary things about your body, it can be tempting to do whatever they tell you to do, just in case. But next time someone offers to help you flush toxins out of your system, I want you to imagine a doctor rushing into an emergency room to help a patient who has just inhaled six or seven pounds of anthrax powder. “Quick!” yells the imaginary doctor. “Get this man some red-pepper lemonade!”
Or: Ask your friend which toxins are building up in your body. Just ask him or her to name a few. See what happens.
Premium means really good. Great. The best.
A premium is a reward (usually cash) for a job well done.
It is also what insurance companies call the money you pay them every month. That’s how much they like getting your money (and how good they feel about what they’re doing with it).
We’ve said it before: Names are important. Today we’re going to talk about a thing called “Inspire,” but first, we’d like you to guess what you think it is. Go ahead. Take your time.
Hmm: “Inspire.” Could it be a chocolate-flavored calcium supplement? A wall calendar with pictures of mountains on it? Maybe a new brand of adult diapers? Good guesses, all, but wrong! It’s actually the name of al Qaeda’s not-so-secret secret newsletter.
That’s right: the people who brought you the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — not to mention countless bombings and kidnappings and general violent mayhem throughout the Middle East — produce a newsletter called Inspire. Not Holy Warriors, The Suicide Vest, or Death to the Infidels Monthly — Inspire.
They don’t use the newsletter to recruit new members. They’re just talking to each other about themselves.
This is important: People never think of themselves as the bad guys or the “extremists” (yikes, we’ll address that word some other time) — even if they are murdering people or encouraging others to do so. Even then they talk about “inspiration” as if it’s a specialty of theirs. We should all think about that every chance we get.
You may have heard that there’s a single Chinese character that means both “crisis” and “opportunity.” You probably heard this from a motivational speaker, your office manager, or your middle-school guidance counselor. It’s a nice story, but it isn’t true.
I mean, none of it is true. The part about the Chinese word for “crisis” isn’t true, and the other part — the part where there’s an opportunity hiding inside every crisis — is also really super not true.
There’s nothing wrong with looking for ways to make a bad situation less bad, but sometimes what you’re dealing with is very clearly a crisis that has no redeeming qualities.
And even if the thing about the Chinese word were true (it isn’t), it wouldn’t mean the two ideas are related in any way. In English, we have a word that means both “shoreline” and “place to put money” and nobody thinks there’s a profound connection between those things.
Here at Wordmonster, we don’t really care what you say as long as you think about the effect your words will have once you release them into the wild. We’re never going to shame you for saying “who” instead of “whom” or for ending your sentence with a preposition or anything like that. That stuff bores us to death.
But sometimes when you talk, we can tell you’re not paying attention.
Like let’s say something really irritating happens. Maybe you lose a pie-eating contest to the worst person you know. And then, with a dismissive wave of your hand, you say you “could care less” that you lost.
What you mean is that you don’t care, but the words you’re saying mean that you DO care. The expression you’re looking for is “couldn’t care less,” which would mean you don’t care at all.
People often say the opposite of what they mean on purpose. But that’s not what you’re doing when you say “could care less.” You’re just repeating a mistake you heard someone else make.
Once you start paying attention to what you say, it will be very difficult to stop.
Success means practically nothing.
Lots of people will tell you they can help you succeed or that they will give you every possible advantage, so if you don’t succeed, it will be your fault.
But what do they mean when they say “success?” What do YOU mean when you say it? What is it you’re trying to succeed at?
If your answer isn’t “getting out of bed” or “finishing that sandwich” or any other task that has a clearly defined beginning and end, you’re never going to succeed.
Even if you said something like “I want to succeed at playing the trumpet,” you’re setting yourself up to fail. Because how will you know when you’re playing the trumpet successfully? Once you know the basics — how to read and play the notes on your sheet music — you’ll start thinking of success as playing something a bit more complicated, and then when you can do that, success will start to look a lot more like playing in an orchestra, and then when you get your first job in the orchestra, you’ll think how much more of a success you’d be if you were a first-chair trumpet player, and once you’re sitting comfortably face-to-stomach with your conductor, you’ll start to wonder about those REALLY successful trumpet players in the London Philharmonic and so on.
“Success” is a dumb thing to strive for, an ever-receding mirage in the dry, dry desert of life. You won’t get there. Learn to play some scales on the trumpet instead. See where it takes you.
A senseless thing is a thing we don’t understand — a thing that doesn’t make sense to us. Since we are humans with tiny brains and we spend our whole lives hurtling through space on a spinning wet rock, we have countless opportunities to use this word. But we almost never do.
We reserve “senseless” for a certain kind of horrible thing. You’ll never hear us mention a senseless tornado, a senseless shark attack, senseless writing, or a senseless disease.
Almost always, when we use the word “senseless” — senseless cruelty, senseless violence — it’s because people are hurting other people. In a cold, dark universe full of baffling things, this is what confuses us the most.
Life insurance sounds like it will keep you alive if something terrible happens. Like health insurance, but more so.
Here is the funny part: Life insurance doesn’t even kick in until you die. It’s a bet you make with an insurance company. You’re betting that you’re going to die soon. If you win (by dying), the insurance company has to give a lot of money to your relatives.
Some things scare us so much that we’re afraid to talk about them. So we pick a word that’s completely different from the thing we’re afraid of and say that instead.
We fear death far more than we fear earthquakes or floods. The people who named life insurance (shortly before attempting to sell it to other people) used this knowledge to their advantage. They knew nobody wanted to talk about dying or think about it or get a bill every month that said “death” on it, so they put a word in there that means the opposite of death.
Oh, sure, they might offer you some accidental death and dismemberment insurance as an afterthought, but “life” is always what gets you in the door.