death penalty

We all know what the death penalty is. It’s killing somebody who has been convicted of a particularly heinous crime.

It’s strange to see these two words, death and penalty, together. Death couldn’t be clearer. Somebody dies. But penalty? That sounds like an irritating fee hidden in the small print of a contract — maybe five minutes on the bench, for you sports fans — but what’s really happening is that your state’s government has decided to kill you.* Well, not YOU, probably, but someone.

Whatever you think about this practice — killing somebody because they do something horrible — I’m sure you’ll agree that “penalty” is a pretty soft word for a person dying at the hands of his or her jailers. It also adds an air of bureaucratic inevitability to the “death” part. Just like your bank has no choice but to charge you $85 if your balance dips below $100, we have no choice but to kill people who do awful things.

*Put that in your “nanny state” pipe and smoke it.


Offshoring is business jargon. It sounds like a nice seaside vacation, doesn’t it? What it means is: setting up shop (generally a factory or a call center) in a country where people will work for a lot less money than they would in your company’s country of origin.

There are all kinds of complicated arguments about whether this is a good thing to do or not. I’m not going to get into any of them here, but I will say that wherever you find a word like this — an image so dramatically different from the thing it is supposed to describe — chances are pretty good that you’ll also find an unrepentant spin doctor or a guilty conscience.

it’s science: priming (or: words are controlling you)

People say shit like this to me all the time: “It’s cute/funny/eccentric that you get all worked up about what people say. But words don’t REALLY do anything, do they? Wouldn’t you rather care about something that has an actual, measurable effect in the world, like the great Pacific garbage patch or corporate tax law?”

Oh, Jesus, no. No. Really. No. And anyway, words DO have measurable effects in the world, and that’s not some bullshit I just made up. It’s science!

Last time we heard from science, it said words could turn us into jerks. If you didn’t like that, I’m afraid you’re going to like this even less: Words can influence how you react to all kinds of things.

There is this idea in psychology called priming. When you see or hear a word (or a set of words like “entitled, asshole, republican, senator”), it can affect what you notice, how you treat people on the train, or how much respect you have for your senator without you ever consciously making the connection between the word(s) and your attitude/action.

Just like it’s going to be extremely difficult for you not to think about a hang-gliding giraffe right now, there isn’t much you can do to avoid being primed. Words — and the people who use them at you — have the upper hand.

nanny state

Oh, god, yes. Nanny state. This is great. Wait ’til you see how it backfires.

Users of this term want you to think of the government as the boring frowny lady your parents hired to come over and stop you from having any fun.

The idea they want to get across is that the government should not be able to come to your house and tell you what to do, especially if you have a six-figure salary in your house and the nanny wants you to pay higher taxes on it.

Interestingly, there is only one group of people in the world who would ever be in a position to say, “How dare that nanny come into my house and tell me what to do!”


One more thing: I seem to hear about nanny states only when the subject is taxes or business regulations or vegetables in public school cafeterias. The government is way out of line telling people what to do about this stuff, just like a mean old nanny. But when the subject is government-mandated invasive medical procedures for women who don’t want or need them, the nanny vanishes in a poof of rhetoric.

what is bias?

Bias is a kind of prejudice, a tendency to believe something even when you can’t prove it’s true.

We all have biases. If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I have a strong anti-authoritarian bias. All other things being equal, I’m more likely to side with the people marching and yelling and setting things on fire than with the people trying to keep them in line. I don’t always agree with protesters’ motives/demands and I don’t think property damage is necessarily the best way to get a point across, but when I hear a riot has broken out, I assume there is a group of bastards somewhere who had it coming.

There all kinds of biases. Some people secretly believe members or your race or gender are by nature sneaky, greedy, lazy, bad drivers, bad dancers, and so on, and every time they see someone who looks like you acting that way, they count the memory as evidence that they’re right. You and I do the same thing with our own biases. I nod self-righteously whenever I hear about an authority figure exposed as a fraud.

That’s the dangerous thing about bias: It feels so right. If I’m honest, I have to admit that an angry mob is sometimes just a bunch of idiots with flaming torches — a public menace that won’t accomplish anything — and my squishy fondness for rebels and agitators makes it harder for me to dismiss their tactics.

If you want to know what’s true, you should be aware of how your own biases affect what you notice and how you think about the world and the people in it.


Beware of anyone who is not a medical doctor but nonetheless refers to him- or herself as “doctor.”

Some people will tell you that if they have a doctorate in something, they’ve earned the right to be called doctor. If that was true, you’d witness a lot more conversations like this:

(MAN, bleeding from a gaping wound in his head, runs up to WOMAN on a crowded city street.)

MAN: “AaaaAAARRHGhghghh!! I need a doctor!”
WOMAN: “I wrote a dissertation on Kierkegaard and the meaning of meaning.”
MAN: “Oh, thank goodness!”

And this:

(TEACHER bursts into university faculty lounge, where THREE PEOPLE are reading.)

TEACHER: “Help! I need a doctor right away!”
PERSON 1: “I’m a neurosurgeon.”
TEACHER (nervously): “Uuuuhmm.”
PERSON 2: “I’m a gastroenterologist.”
TEACHER (sweating): “I — I’m sorry — I just —”
PERSON 3: “What is it?”
TEACHER: “I need someone to talk to about 16th-century French literature for the next eight hours!”
PERSON 3: Oh, a doctor. Try the fourth floor.

In 21st century English, “doctor” means medical doctor. People who adopt the title without first going to medical school are bullshitting you (and possibly also themselves).

why pay attention?

Some of you are still thinking that paying attention to the words around you sounds like a lot of work. It can be, but please try it anyway.

“Pay attention” doesn’t mean “pay attention only to other people.” Once you notice all the sneaky, cold-blooded, underhanded, ruthless, mindless, and destructive things people do with language, it’s easy to forget you’re a silly asshole just like everyone else. You have an agenda, too, and the words you’re using to justify your moral convictions can do a lot of damage out there if you’re not careful.

Everything good in the world comes from people who pay attention. Music, art, comedy, science, architecture, engineering, poetry, medicine, shoes, castles, everything. When you bother to notice how something works, you are setting yourself up to be a hero, to create or discover or explain something no one but you could imagine.

So please, remember to notice things. Start with something that doesn’t make sense. Look closely. See where it takes you.

undocumented worker

And undocumented worker is a person who is working illegally in the United States, generally because they tiptoed into the country behind the government’s back and got a job without applying for citizenship or a visa. Sound familiar?

If you pay attention to U.S. politics (which, hey, we’re all for paying attention to things, but we’d kind of forgive you in this case if you didn’t), you may have noticed that Republicans are more likely to call the people described above “illegals,” while Democrats are more likely to call them “undocumented workers.” Just an observation.

You already know why it’s not cool to call a person “an illegal,” but “undocumented worker” kind of doesn’t cut it, either. It sounds like someone who forgot to initial pages eight and seventeen of their tax forms or something — not someone who could get deported or go to jail for breaking immigration laws.

If you’re hoping for a neutral term to take the place of these loaded ones, you won’t find it here. Sometimes you need more than one or two words to describe people and what they do.