Have you noticed how strange it is that we’re supposed to say “bless you” to each other when we sneeze? And then if someone says it to us after we sneeze, we’re supposed to say “thank you?” It’s weird.
Why do we* do this? What are we trying to accomplish? And why sneezing? No one expects us to say “bless you” after a cough or a yawn.
Like I said, it’s weird.
*Well, I don’t. Not the “bless you” part, anyway. But I do say thank you if someone else says it to me, because not saying thank you draws way more attention than it’s worth. You don’t say thank you and then you either have to endure the chilly awkward silence or you have to explain that even if you were a believer in gods and blessings, you still wouldn’t have the audacity to think anything you said would have a measurable effect on another person’s health, plus it makes you really uncomfortable when people say words without thinking about what they mean. Nobody wants to listen to all that. Just say thank you.
Natural is a nice word, isn’t it? Doesn’t it make you think of palm trees and the rainforest and summer breezes and freshly churned butter? You know, and tender young Cheetos, just in from the Cheeto harvest?
Oh, no. Sorry, everybody. It turns out “natural” is a completely meaningless marketing term. Maybe next time we’ll get a good one.
But actually, before the image of the Cheeto harvest gets too far away from us, I should remind you that food isn’t the only thing people want to sell you under this label. There’s also plastic bottles, clothing made in sweatshops, and perhaps my personal favorite: medicine.
Yes, natural medicine. These products can cure cancer, indigestion, AND multiple sclerosis, but good luck getting your natural-medicine practitioner or the uniformed employees at your local hippie grocery store to help you with a severed limb or a detached retina.
If you tell me something is not unreasonable, I will assume you are not unbullshitting me.
We here at Wordmonster have no time for arbitrary authority,* little respect for institutions, and only the smallest amount of patience for frippery. That’s why we spit coffee all over our keyboard every time we read the words “his eminence” or “her highness” or any of the other hilariously hyperbolic ways people refer to the members of their nations’ royal families. Even if you don’t want to go as far as to say royal families shouldn’t exist at all (we’re happy to carry that torch alone, if necessary), we hope you’ll agree that no one should ever feel like they have to address a fellow human as “your eminence” with a straight face.
*We’re mostly okay with the kind of authority people command when they know what the hell they’re talking about, but even that can get out of hand sometimes.
The word you’re looking for is “woman,” son. Or “girl,” if applicable. Okay? If you can’t immediately see the difference between “a woman/girl” and “a female,” maybe you’ll notice that you don’t generally refer to a black person as “a black” unless you are someone’s deeply embarrassing 93-year-old grandparent.
Did you wince a little just reading that last sentence? Good! I’ll tell you why. It’s because the words “black” and “female” are adjectives. When you take an adjective that describes only one characteristic of a person’s appearance, biology, history, or philosophy and then turn it into a noun (like we did above), you’re reducing the whole person to that one trait. Nobody likes that. Don’t be a jerk.
Unless you are standing at the top of a steep hill during a rainstorm, you don’t need to worry too much about slippery slopes.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great image. You put one foot forward — say, by forcing health insurance companies to cover birth control — and WHOOSH, you slip. Before you know it, you’re at the bottom of the slope, where women murder toddlers for fun. Or what’s the one about gay marriage? If you let gay people marry each other, you also have to let people marry turtles? Someone actually said this.
Political positions — even apparently harmless ones — can have serious consequences. Occasionally the doomsayers are right and the slope between here and the collapse of civilization is indeed slippery. But usually it’s more that you’re stuck listening to some asshole who can’t argue properly and therefore hopes you won’t have too many follow-up questions when he gets to the part about how sales tax leads to gum disease or atheism leads to nihilism. It’s a really common rhetorical trick. Don’t fall for it.
Jobs, in other words. The jobs department. HR hires and fires people and files all the attendant paperwork. And you, my friend, are a human resource. A crop to be harvested. An oil well to be drained. But at least you have health insurance, right? Some of you? Guys?
A euphemism is a sneaky way to talk about something you don’t like thinking about.
Maybe you don’t like thinking about death, so you say your aunt passed away. Pass away is a euphemism for die. Or maybe you don’t like it when you’re a military commander and you find out your soldiers killed some innocent people, so you call the dead people “collateral damage.” Collateral damage is a euphemism for “innocent people we killed.”
We all avoid talking about things that scare, offend, disgust, or upset us. We’ve all said “let’s agree to disagree” when we meant “I hope something you love catches on fire.” Sometimes we need a euphemism or two just to get through the day. I know.
But be careful, okay?
An effective euphemism slips a warm, comforting layer of bullshit between the speaker (and the uncritical listener) and the scary/offensive/icky subject at hand. That’s not so bad if the subject is Lord Voldemort or a large, suspicious mole you found in a place you’d rather not disclose, but we run into trouble if we’re trying to have a conversation about, say, whether it is okay to kill innocent people in pursuit of a military goal.
Euphemisms don’t just distance us from what we’re talking about: They make it easy for us to forget it altogether. Notice it’s not just the words “kill,” “innocent,” and “people” that are absent from “collateral damage” — it’s the ideas, too. You can see the problem. Now don’t look away.
You don’t need to be a language geek or a professional psychologist to figure this one out, guys. People are afraid to die, so they are also afraid to say “die” — as if saying it will make them or their loved ones die sooner.
People are funny that way.
The extra funny part is that we all know “pass away” means “die.” People who passed away are just as dead as people who died. Everyone knows this. It’s not like there are shades of being dead.
Death isn’t the only thing people think they can change by calling it something else. We’ll talk more about that soon.