jargonwatch: touch base

Jargon makes you stupid. Resisting jargon makes you smarter. Jargonwatch is here to help.

When we talk about jargon, we’re not talking about complicated specialty jargon, like the kind you want your lawyer to use on your behalf when you’re caught dumping nine gallons of dishsoap into a water fountain in a rich neighborhood. No. We’re talking about the kind people use when they’re trying to sound smarter or more important than they really are.

Today’s offender: “touch base.”

When someone says they want to “touch base” with you, what they mean is that want to talk to you.

Here at Wordmonster, we enjoy a clever turn of phrase. But “touch base” is not a clever turn of phrase. It’s meaningless, brain-eating zombie jargon. Here’s how you can tell:

Imagine “touching base” with another person. What do you see in your mind? Is it a baseball game? Are both of you touching the base?

In baseball, if two people are touching a base at the same time, one of them is out. He or she has to leave the base immediately. There’s no time to talk about the weather, let alone have a lengthy discussion about PowerPoint templates.

Your mind is only as sharp as the words you use. Don’t be dull.

traditional

“Traditional” is another way of saying, “We’ve always done it this way.” It’s supposed to make you think of traditions — knowledge, beliefs, and rituals passed on through many generations.

The best traditions — fireworks, picnics, parades, birthday cake, decorative hats, etc. — are good harmless fun. If you don’t like them, you can say “No thanks” to the traditional folks and go right on with your non-traditional day.

But when your traditions start to affect people who are not you, it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you are keeping those traditions alive.

If you’re killing your daughter, cutting an infant, or making up rules about who’s allowed to get married, for example, “That’s how we’ve always done it” isn’t a good enough reason to keep doing it.

Maybe there’s a better reason. Or maybe it’s time to get some new traditions.

because i said so (the argument from authority)

If you are a child or used to be one, you’re familiar with the expression “because I said so.” When adults say this, they think they’re saying, “This discussion is over.” What they’re actually saying is, “There’s no good reason for you to listen to me, but since I’m the most powerful person here, you have to!”

Most adults* would never think of pulling “because I said so” on another adult. That would be rude. But sometimes we will tell you to do or believe something because some other, more powerful person said so. We’ll repeat the orders or opinions of the celebrity, teacher, boss, scientist, president, or ski instructor without bothering to find out if they’re true (“Guys, vitamin C makes your hair grow faster. It does! My political science professor told me”).

This is called an “argument from authority.” In some circles, it is also called “the kind of argument that does really well with people who never learned how to use Google.”

*Adults who use their authority (rather than their ideas) to get other adults to do what they say are the worst kind of adults.

tyranny

A tyrant is a person who gets control of a country and then exploits the hell out of the people in it.

Tyranny is the system that keeps the tyrant in power, where he is free to commit genocide, have statues erected in his honor, and drink expensive liquor in peace while everyone else starves to death.

Some people are fond of using “tyranny” to describe anything they dislike about the government. Here’s a good test to see if they’re onto something:

If you live in a place where you can call your government tyrannical in public without fearing for your safety, congratulations! No tyranny is afoot.

Tyrants are terrifying and fear gets people’s attention. If you associate the horrors of the world’s worst dictatorships with, for example, the word “taxes,” you might start to confuse your feelings about group executions and mass graves with your feelings about increasing taxes for rich people. So listen carefully and watch what you say. You’re our only hope.

war on terror

“War on terror” is a phrase the U.S. government has used to describe some of its military actions and policy changes since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

When you declare war on a country, you go to that place and fight. You depose leaders. You tear down buildings and steal whatever’s inside.

The “terror” in “war on terror” is supposed to remind you of terrorism. Terrorism is very scary, but it doesn’t leave buildings or government officials lying around, vulnerable to attack. It can spring up wherever there are people and vanish into a crowd at a moment’s notice.

So maybe war is not the best way to stop terrorism. But the expression isn’t “war on terrorism” — it’s “war on terror.”

Terror, being a human emotion like sadness or anger or jealousy, is not the kind of thing you can destroy with a tank.

The people who named the “war on terror” wanted you to think bombing Middle Eastern countries, spying on Americans, and making everyone take off their shoes at the airport are the only things keeping you safe from the darkest corners of your mind.

theory

The word “theory” can mean a few different things. A scientific theory is not the same thing as your uncle John’s theory about barbecue sauce.

When Uncle John says he has a theory, what he means is that he has a hypothesis — a guess that could turn into a theory someday if enough people try to prove it wrong and nobody succeeds.

Barbecue sauce is one thing, but what if Uncle John (or anyone else) has a “theory” about something less subjective, like airplanes or economics or the origins of life on Earth? More importantly, how do you know if his theory is better or worse than the scientific one? Don’t scientific theories start out as guesses, too? Isn’t Uncle John’s guess just as good as a scientist’s guess?

These are great questions.

Scientific theories do start out as guesses. But when you do a lot of science, you learn more and more about how the world works, and the knowledge makes you a better guesser. Like when you know how an airplane works and something goes wrong with it, you might be able to guess the problem on the first try, but someone like me — someone who has only a vague idea how an airplane works — could end up guessing badly for a very long time.

The other really important difference between Uncle J. and scientists is that when someone comes along and proves your uncle doesn’t know as much about barbecue sauce as he thought he did, he can go right on believing his “theory” is correct. Scientists can’t do that. Their theories have to work in real life. If a scientific theory doesn’t work, scientists keep looking until they find one that does.

liar

A liar is a person who lies. Everybody lies. Therefore everyone is a liar?

Yes. But also no.

When you call someone a liar, you’re saying not that the person has lied, but that there is something inherently dishonest about her. It’s not what she did — it’s who she is. So how can we tell if we’re dealing with a liar and not merely a person who lied? Easy:

Liars are people we don’t like.

If a friend cheats on her significant other, we say she’s a good person who made a mistake, an honest person who told a big lie. But if our friend’s significant other cheats on her, we say he is a dirty liar and we hope he gets chlamydia and dies alone in a gutter. If a politician from the party we support gets caught lying into a microphone, we say “Well, that’s politics” or “He misspoke.” If a politician from any other party does the same thing, we say he is a dangerous liar and threaten to move to Canada (or buy 500 assault rifles) if he is elected.

We never follow through, of course. We’re always telling lies.

metaphor fight: handouts, safety nets

Place your bets and adjust your mouth-guards, everybody — it’s time for another metaphor fight! Today, the handouts face the safety net in what is sure to be an ugly, bloody, emotionally fraught, politically motivated battle for your brain.

These two terms describe exactly the same thing: Government money (or food vouchers) for people without jobs. Unemployment checks and food stamps, basically.

You may be thinking, “I get the idea, Wordmonster, but how should I FEEL about this? Is it good or bad for governments to give money/food to people who don’t have jobs?” Don’t ask me.* Ask the people who came up with today’s metaphors!

The safety-net people think of the American worker as a tightrope walker or maybe a trapeze artist — a highly skilled person doing something impressive. They hope nobody’s ever going to slip off the wire, but they put a safety net under it so that if the worker falls, she can get up again.

The handout people have a less favorable impression of the unemployed American. She’s a beggar, a worthless layabout who will — given the chance — immediately spend the government’s money on bottom-shelf vodka and salty snacks. She’ll be sitting in front of the same drugstore until the end of time, mumbling and snatching dollar bills out of your pockets.

Many people will pick one of these metaphors and run with it. You don’t have to do that. The world is not a simple place.

*Seriously please never ask me how you should feel.