derivative

“Derivative” has a bunch of meanings.

If you’re an artist and your work is derivative, it’s basically a cheap imitation of some older, better piece of art. If you’re a mathematician, a derivative tells you how a function (a very fancy math problem) will change if you feed different numbers into it.

If you’re an investor, a derivative is a bet.

It’s not quite like betting on a roulette wheel or on a roll of the dice. When you gamble with cards or wheels or dice, you can calculate your exact odds of winning the bet. You can’t do the same for derivatives because there are too many things you don’t know about the game.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect people might think differently about the wealth-creating class if, instead of saying, “I am going to invest your money in derivatives markets,” people said, “I am going to bet your money on what I think the price of corn will be six months from now.”

the holy land

“The Holy Land” is a patch of mostly desert in Western Asia that a lot of people have been fighting over pretty much constantly for thousands of years.

The names of places don’t always make sense. Greenland, for example, is covered in ice. The Midwest is in the eastern half of the United States. Parts of the Near East are east of the Middle East, and the Far East is west of North America. What a mess.

Sometimes the people who picked the names were missing important information about the places. Sometimes they thought if they picked a really nice name for a cold and desolate place, gullible people would move there.

In the case of “the Holy Land,” people who lived on the small patch of mostly desert a long time ago believed a god told their ancestors that it was his favorite piece of land and they should keep living on it. Unfortunately, some other people who also lived there believed the god had said essentially the same thing to THEIR ancestors, which is one reason they’re all still killing each other.

Hey, come on. It makes at least as much sense as Greenland.

internment

Internment sounds like a boring unpaid summer job. But actually, it’s a euphemism for being held prisoner by your own government — usually with a lot of other people who look like you or share your religious or political beliefs — even though you haven’t committed a crime.

No trial, no lawyer. Just a military officer with a gun in your face. Internment.

This is a real thing governments do. They decide that some of their citizens are dirty or greedy or have scary ideas or might share sensitive information with some other government, and then they find and imprison those people. But they don’t call the prisons “prisons.” They call them “camps.”

Camps!

When people do horrible things to each other, they often use dull, vague, or misleading words to try to hide what they’ve done. Don’t let them succeed.

arms

“Arms” — meaning guns — is not a metaphor for the kind of arms attached to most people’s shoulders.

It’s surprising, I know. I was all ready to tell you about how it’s no wonder people get really upset when they feel like their “right to bear arms” is in danger because when you call guns “arms,” it’s very easy to start thinking of them as extensions of your body, and no one likes to be told what to do with his or her body. Good thing I consulted a dictionary first!

Because it turns out the arms on your body and the ones you use to kill things at a distance come from two completely different old words that just happen to sound the same to us in present-day English.

When I realized my mistake, I almost abandoned this post on the spot. But I can’t be the only person who thinks of fleshy arms when I hear about deadly ones. And if a lot of other people do too, doesn’t arms become a metaphor for arms, even if our word-using ancestors didn’t mean it that way?

I don’t know the answer to this question.

entitlement

If you’re entitled to something, it means somebody owes you that thing or that you have a right to claim it.

If you are entitled — full stop — it means you THINK you are owed something when in fact you are a spoiled brat.

So. Let’s talk about “entitlement programs.” Are they programs that give people something they’re owed, or are they programs for entitled people — that is, ways to give out something for nothing to a bunch of lazy parasites?

Good question.

“Entitlement programs” are government programs that give money or vouchers to participants. In the United States, such programs include Social Security* (money for retired people), Medicare (healthcare for retired people and people with disabilities), Medicaid (healthcare for poor people), and SNAP (food for poor people).

You could make a case that, because you have to pay taxes to participate, you’ve helped fund the programs, which means you’re “entitled” to benefits in the first sense of the word. The government owes you.

But “entitlement” here is intentionally ambiguous. When you hear it, it’s usually because the speaker wants you to think of the other kind of “entitled” — the universe-owes-me-something-because-I’m-so-special kind — and to imagine hordes of worthless layabouts at your front door, all claiming they have a right to eat your Thanksgiving turkey while it’s still warm.

Whether these programs are a good use of government money is another discussion entirely. But if you’re willing to characterize everyone on Medicaid and food stamps and Social Security as entitled, you’ve made up your mind already.

*Yikes, is that really what we call it? We’ll deal with “social security” some other time.

fair

Fair means — hm. “Fair” is tricky.

Strictly speaking, nothing is fair. Some people get a lot of advantages — money, beauty, talent, education, powerful friends and family, that kind of thing — and other people get to live in a one-room shanty with five children in the middle of a war zone. Some people who get the advantages would have been fine without them, and other people’s lives will be an endless parade of bullshit no matter how many advantages they get.

So when we say something is “fair” or “not fair,” this deeply unfair place we live in is our starting point, which is why fairness is often completely subjective. In fact, if you pay attention, I think you’ll notice that “fair” usually means “whatever sounds good to the person speaking.”

This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about what’s fair and what isn’t — we can all agree that it’s fair to give every member of a debate equal speaking time or that it isn’t fair to lock someone up for a crime they didn’t commit. It just means keep an eye on people who can’t wait to tell you how fair or unfair something is.

discover

Discover means to find something (or figure out how something works) before everyone else does.

American children are taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. This piece of historical trivia often prompts a subset of American children to narrow their eyebrows and say, “Wait a minute. Weren’t there people here already? Didn’t they discover America? And wasn’t it not even called America until 1507?”

Columbus did not “discover” America. Of course he didn’t.

But the word has stuck because it makes the story more exciting. You imagine a great explorer, all alone (he wasn’t alone), setting out to conquer the vast ocean in a tiny sailboat (actually it was a caravan of three ships) even though everyone thought he would fall off the edge of the earth (no, eveyone did not think that) — a lone genius dragging the rest of humanity into the future.

Real discoveries rarely work out this way.

create jobs

You may have heard politicians promising to “create jobs.” It sounds great, doesn’t it? We don’t have enough jobs, so these nice people are going to make some new ones for us.

They don’t mean they’ll hire us themselves, of course. They’ll make some changes to the budget and the tax code and then other people will hire us. That’s the idea.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Economies are complicated. If you could create a job the same way you can create a pizza or a building or a work of art — by following a recipe or a blueprint or a muse — every president would do it all the time. There would be no recessions. We’d argue less.

what is hyperbole?

Hyperbole is a special kind of exaggeration.

The difference between hyperbole and plain old exaggeration is this: When people are exaggerating, they might believe what they’re saying, and even if they don’t, they probably want YOU to believe it. But when people use hyperbole, they know they’re doing it, and they expect you to know it, too.

Let’s say I want to tell you about a banana spider that once fell from a high ceiling and landed on the book I was reading. Legs included, the spider was about as big as my fist.*

Exaggeration: That spider was the size of a grapefruit.
Hyperbole: That spider was the size of a military helicopter.

See the difference?

Hyperbole should not be confused with a hyperbola, which is not similar at all.

*That sounds like an exaggeration, but it isn’t. Sweet dreams.