spin cycle: absconder

If you’re new here, Spin Cycle is where we reach into the news with our bare hands and pull out a word or phrase that doesn’t sound right to us.

Did you hear the story about the convicted child rapist who escaped from a halfway house in Colorado?

This is a horrible story all around, and there’s a lot to talk about here, like the fact that people who abuse children were almost always abused themselves when they were children — and we could probably spend all day talking about how to keep people from hurting children (or adults) while remembering that they are humans like us — but the thing we’re going to talk about instead is how the PR guy for the Colorado Department of Corrections called the escaped prisoner an “absconder.”

You can see why he would do that. He works for the organization that was supposed to be keeping an eye on the escapee, and it’s his job to make that organization look as good as possible. It’s much easier to forgive them for losing track of a sneaky absconder than for failing to keep a convicted child rapist off the streets.

If you are trying to get information about something that happened, it’s important to consider your source.

juvenile detention center

A juvenile detention center is a jail for children. “Juvenile detention center” is a euphemism for “child jail.”

Whether or not you think it’s a good idea to put children in jail, you can see that the people who named “juvenile detention centers” had some doubts about it. If the idea of jailed children didn’t make them uncomfortable, they could just as easily have called these facilities “child jails.”

Instead, they settled on “juvenile detention center,” which has three times as many syllables as “child jail” and draws your attention away from the children who are locked up inside.

There are some differences between child jail and adult jail. Children are allowed to go to school in child jail — adults have no such rights. But the basic idea is the same.

Why not call them child jails, then? Really: Why not?


If someone tells you “scientists are baffled” about something, there are two questions you might want to ask right away.

The first one is, “Which scientists?” If the answer you get is, “The two scientists I interviewed before I told you this story,” then you might want to see what a lot of other scientists have to say about the “baffling” turn of events. Or: Read some related research. You might find a perfectly reasonable explanation all on your own.

The second question to ask is, “Did the scientists actually say they were baffled, or did they just say they didn’t know exactly what happened?”

Not knowing the exact answer to a question is not the same thing as being baffled. Like let’s say you have the flu and a journalist asks you how you got it. You say, “Hmm. Maybe I caught the virus from my roommate, or maybe I picked it up from the child who sneezed in my eye on the bus. I don’t know for sure.” You wouldn’t expect the journalist to turn around and say you were BAFFLED BY MYSTERIOUS FLU OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN.

That kind of thing happens to scientists all the time. Watch out for it.


Hello. It’s nice to see you. I’d like to tell you why I’m here.

Mostly it’s because language is full of hidden assumptions and riddled with little stories most people don’t even realize they are hearing. Some of the stories are basically harmless. Others are powerfully destructive.

Whether the person speaking believes the stories or merely hopes that the rest of us will believe them, the effect is the same: The stories get stuck in our heads like irritating pop songs. We repeat them over and over until they are part of us.

I just want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way.

We don’t have to assume anyone is out to get us. We don’t have to yell or call anyone stupid. We just have to learn to spot the story behind the words and then repeat it out loud. Make it clearer.

Here’s how we do it.


The first thing is to look honestly at what’s happening. That means describing the situation with simple verbs and no adjectives. Then, just to be sure you’re not bullshitting yourself, repeat the exercise from the perspective of a person who has an opinion different from yours about what SHOULD be happening. The point is to settle on a description that feels as neutral and non-judgemental as possible. Once you have done this, any disagreements about what SHOULD be happening will make themselves known.


Yes, obviously, empathy for people who have less power than us, fewer unfair advantages, who suffer in ways we can barely even imagine, yes, yes, of course. But also empathy for people who spread bad ideas — ideas that hurt people. We want those people to shut up a lot of the time, but we have to remember they are people just like us. No matter how hard we disagree with them, no matter how much their faces annoy us, no matter what kind of havoc their awful ideas are wreaking out in the world, they are human beings and that means we have a lot in common with them. For example, none of us thinks of ourself as a bad person. We think we are good and they think they are good. We are starting from the same place. We have to remember.

critical thinking

That doesn’t mean we should keep quiet when we notice an idea that is harming people, but it does mean that we don’t attack people. If we must attack, we attack ideas, and always with the goal of making the world a kinder, more thoughtful place.


You might be wrong. That’s okay! We’re all wrong all the time. If you are wrong, there is no need to feel defensive about it. Simply change your opinion to accommodate the new information you’ve received and you’ll be right. Unless you’re still wrong.

the pale blue dot

One of my favorite pieces of writing is Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” monologue. It’s a beautiful reflection on the ways our planet is both utterly insignificant and the most important place in the cosmos. I think about that a lot. Everything we do matters so little and so much.

Life is short and we don’t always get to choose what we’ll do with our time. I’d like to spend some of mine here with you, thinking critically about the stories we hear (and tell) every day. Maybe write a few new ones. We have a lot of work to do. I hope you’ll stick around.

spin cycle: affluenza

Blah blah, Spin Cycle, blah blah, people in the news say a lot crazy stuff and we’re here to help you cope, etc.

By now you’ve all heard about the teenager who killed four people while driving drunk and will not go to jail because he suffered from a severe case of “affluenza.” “Affluenza” is the term an expert witness used to describe being a teenager in a rich family who doesn’t believe his actions will have consequences.

The word (we use the word “word” loosely, just this once) sounds like a disgusting, sometimes deadly condition, so in that sense, it might be a good metaphor for drunk driving. But the psychologist who coined it was a witness for the defense. His defense of the teenager was, essentially, “This kid shouldn’t go to jail for killing four people because he thinks he can do anything he wants because he’s rich.”

The psychologist later said he hated to see any kid — rich or poor — go to kid jail. But the fact that his defense kept this particular kid out of jail tells us something important about courts and bias and the persuasive power of certain ideas.


If someone calls you articulate, it means you express yourself clearly. Not everybody can do that. But you can. You’re articulate. Good for you! It’s a compliment. Right?

Well, it depends. Do you belong to a group of people who has, in recent history, been enslaved or denied basic human rights? And was one of the justifications for denying your group’s rights the really destructively wrong idea that your group was not as intelligent or self-aware as other groups? And is the person who called you “articulate” a member of the group of people who enslaved/denied rights to your group, and have members of her group been overtly and subtly questioning your group’s intelligence and making fun of the words and expressions favored by some members of your group (maybe words and expressions you use yourself) basically every day of your life leading up to the moment this person told you her opinion about the way you talk?

In that case, it would be pretty tough to take “articulate” as a compliment because you would have no idea how she meant it. Did she mean to say you have a way with words? Or did she mean she can’t believe how smart and normal you sound, based on how stupid and weird she was expecting you to sound?

It’s important to think about how your words might affect other people.

spin cycle: internal devaluation

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we talk about the worst things people in the news are saying to us instead of throwing ourselves onto an electric barbed-wire fence.

What do you picture when you hear the term “internal devaluation?” I really tried to picture something. I gave it a good honest try. But the only thing I could imagine was seven billion pairs of human eyes glazing over.

When you run into a term like “internal devaluation” — boring, vague, full of bland syllables — you should fight the urge to fall asleep in your chair because it usually means that the person speaking to you is hoping you won’t notice something important. It’s like she’s saying, “HEY, DON’T LOOK OVER HERE. It’s super boring and you probably wouldn’t understand anyway.”

Don’t listen to her. You’re smart. Go on, have a look.

Europe is short on cash. Some countries are trying to fix this problem by “easing regulations” on businesses (or “stripping away workers’ rights,” depending on who is speaking), which the countries hope will make the businesses more profitable, which would bring some extra money into the local economies. They’re calling the regulation-easing/rights-stripping policy changes “internal devaluation.”

So: What’s being “devalued” is work. Or people. Depending on who’s speaking.


Somehow, “garnish” means both “the little decorative things chefs sometimes put on the plate with the rest of your food” and “to take money out of your paycheck without your permission to pay off your debts.”

We don’t know how this happened. The two ideas aren’t related at all. But it’s the second meaning we’re interested in, because it makes “garnish” one of those special words that doesn’t sound anything like what it actually means.

Sometimes we use words to distance ourselves from our actions.

If you and I were in charge of getting money from people who weren’t paying their debts, we might find it easier to get through the day if we never had to say words like “seize” or “steal” or “take by force.” It’s a lot easier to say, “We garnished your wages because you defaulted on your loan” than it is to say, “We’re taking your last little bit of money and giving it to somebody else.”

dog whistle

A dog whistle is a whistle that dogs can hear but humans can’t. “Dog whistle” also refers to a word or phrase that is like a secret code for something else.

Here is how the first kind of dog whistle works: A human blows into the whistle and any dogs that have been trained to respond to it come running. Nearby humans don’t hear anything.

The second kind of dog whistle works basically the same way. A human says a special word or phrase into a microphone, and the people who have been trained to respond to it come running. The word or phrase is common, so the rest of the people listening don’t hear it in the same way.

The idea is: People are as easily manipulated by words as dogs are by the whims of the people they are inclined to be loyal to. Here at Wordmonster, we think that’s probably true. But there is an obvious problem with this expression: No one ever thinks of him- or herself as one of the silly, bounding, slobbering dogs. Verbal dog whistles are for other people — people who don’t think.

It’s never a good idea to flatter yourself.


Support means help, but we’ll get back to that in a minute. First I want to know if you ever read the labels on the pills you buy. Like to see how much iron is in your iron tablets or how often you’re supposed to take your maximum-strength cold medicine.

Iron tablets and cold medicine have something in common: They address specific problems in your body. If you have a cold, the cold medicine will clear out your sinuses and lessen the pain in your muscles and throat while your immune system sorts out the virus. If you’re feeling weak because your blood doesn’t have enough iron in it, iron tablets will bring your levels up to normal and your symptoms will go away.

See? Very specific. Now: “support.”

When a label says that some pills “support your immune system,” the people who wrote the label want you to imagine that the pills are like little personal trainers, shouting at your immune system to run faster or lift more or stretch farther — whatever it takes to make your immune system stronger.

But the way your immune system actually gets stronger is by trying to rid your body of stuff that doesn’t belong in it: viruses, bacteria, toxins, that kind of thing.

So: Vitamins don’t support your immune system. A flu shot supports your immune system.

If you see the word “support” on a bottle of pills in the United States, chances are pretty good that those pills were not designed to fix a problem in your body. That’s because the word “support” is so vague that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lets basically anyone — even people who have been caught lying about the things their pills can do — print it on a pill bottle.