word fight: malicious compliance, work-to-rule

Sometimes two groups of people disagree so hard about whether a thing is good or not that they can’t even call it by the same name.

For example: There is a thing called “malicious compliance.” Well, that’s what some people call it. Other people call it “work-to-rule.” Even if you don’t know what the thing is, you can already tell who likes it and who doesn’t. But here’s an example:

A restaurant manager tells his employees to stay out of the back office. It doesn’t matter why. Maybe there’s a cash box in there, or maybe he’s afraid they’ll check the browser history on his computer. And let’s say the only set of keys to the basement liquor cabinet are kept in that office.

Now: The manager is not always around. Sometimes the restaurant gets very busy when he’s gone and the bartenders run out of the menu’s most expensive (and popular) wine. If an employee sneaks into the office to get the keys, the restaurant can keep selling the wine by the glass for the rest of the night. Otherwise, employees will have to tell their customers to order something cheaper.

So: The employees follow the rule — they stay out of the office — even though they know it’s bad for business.

Is this “malicious compliance” — a mean-spirited attempt to hurt the restaurant by taking a rule too literally? Or is it “work-to-rule” — an honest employee effort to expose an incompetent manager while ensuring that they can’t be fired for breaking the rules?

Who wants to know? Who’s answering? Which is it?


In military jargon, “strike” means “bombing.”

I only mention it because the word sounds so much like swinging a bat and not even hitting anything, or like an open-handed slap to the face — probably a face that really deserved it. And while baseball bats and palms and fists can be destructive, none of those things are bombs.

So in that sense, “strike” is also a euphemism for “bombing.” It’s a way to avoid looking directly at the horror.

Here at Wordmonster, we believe that people should avoid inflicting horrors on each other. But if they ARE going to do it, they should at least have to call it what it is.

spin cycle: having it all

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we stare in slack-jawed horror as people say ridiculous things in the news. Today’s awful idea: “having it all.”

Feature writers the world over want to know, “CAN WOMEN HAVE IT ALL?”

In popular parlance, women are said to “have it all” once they have procured the following three items:

1. A fulfilling, preferably high-paying job.
2. A happy marriage.
3. One or more healthy children with whom they spend lots of time.

Oh, boy. Okay. You know how your elementary school teachers told you there was no such thing as a stupid question? They were lying to you. “Can women have it all?” is a stupid question.

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but plenty of women (and men) would jump at the chance to quit their jobs so they could spend more time with their kids — or keep their jobs and let someone else raise their kids. There are women (and men! Men also!), with and without children, who are very happily unmarried, and lots of married and unmarried people who don’t want children at all. People are different.

And then maybe you also noticed the “women” part. Nobody (well, almost nobody) asks dumbass questions like “Can men have it all?” because nobody gives a shit about men’s domestic/procreative choices. That’s lady business. Except, as we’ve just seen, when it isn’t.

The other stupid thing about this question is that the answer to it is clearly always no. No, you can’t be the most important person at your office and the world’s best spouse and the perfect parent, even if you want to. You can’t be a surgeon and an otter and an astronaut all at once, either. It’s okay. Nobody can.

words we need: the perfect lie

As far as I know, there’s no word for the powerful combination of exhilaration and relief you feel when you’ve told the perfect lie.

You’ve felt this way before. You alone had all the information surrounding the lie, your delivery was flawless, and you know no one will ever be able to prove what you said wasn’t the truth. It’s like a cross between finding your wallet when you thought you’d lost it and that scene in The Matrix when all the bullets slow down.

If there is indeed a word for this (in English or any other language) and you know what it is, let us know on Twitter or Facebook.

our children

Our Children are a rhetorical device. That means they’re not actual children — they’re an idea. Our Children represent innocence, helplessness, potential — a precious resource that must be protected at all costs.

Politicians, religious leaders, and other authority figures often express great concern for Our Children when they are trying to convince adults to do things. Think of Our Children. Do it for Our Children.

Even if you don’t think this expression’s only purpose is to make parents associate the love they feel for their children with whatever social or political position the speaker holds, you might notice a few strange things about it.

First, the word “our.” I don’t think I need to say anything else about that. Next, the implication that children are not tougher than adults (no matter how hard you think your life is, it’s easier than being, under the best possible circumstances, twelve years old. Also, children curse like sailors when you’re not around).

Finally, there’s the small matter of whether the thing the speaker is proposing will actually improve the lives of any people, big or small.


A “developing” country is a poor country, if you’re a person who lives in a rich country.

Rich people — and people who live in rich countries — get really uncomfortable around the word “poor,” like it’s some kind of secret they have to keep from poor people: “Shhhh — don’t tell them they’re poor! Tell them they’re underserved populations in developing areas!”

Sorry, rich people, but you’re not doing poor people any favors with your bullshit euphemisms. In fact, the word “developing” is a lot more insulting than the word “poor” because it suggests that the country in question is not home to a fully formed society.

Worse still, people in rich countries refer to their own countries as “developed,” as if they couldn’t possibly “develop” any further, as if they’re the ideal places that “developing” countries are “developing” into.

The whole thing is really gross. Just say “poor” next time.


Homemade means made at home. Yours or someone else’s. Any home, really, but especially your mom’s or grandmother’s or the home of anyone whose cooking might make you feel nostalgic.

When companies that sell mass-produced, vacuum-sealed, sometimes also frozen foods tell you their products are “homemade,” this is the feeling they’re trying to evoke: Somebody else cooked something just for you and you ate it and you were safe.

That much is obvious. But emotional appeal aside, calling something mass-produced, vacuum-sealed, and possibly frozen “homemade” is a strange thing to do.

The word “homemade” suggests that where you make something (home) is more important than how you make it (or what the hell’s in it or how it tastes). But everyone knows “homemade” products are actually made in factories. It’s a lie we’re all in on, like “Passing away isn’t as bad as dying” or “CEOS make 380 times as much as the average worker because they work 380 times as hard.”


When we talk about “beliefs” and “believing in” things, we’re usually talking about stuff we don’t understand or can’t explain: We believe in ghosts and gods. We believe everything happens for a reason.

We don’t believe in trees, though. We know a lot about trees.

But to believe also means to have strong feelings about something, like how people should treat each other or what kinds of things would make the world a nicer place.

It can be confusing when one word has two different meanings. If you say you don’t believe in a god, sometimes people will look at you suspiciously and say, “But don’t you believe in love?”

Do you see what’s going on here? The (wrong) idea is that if you don’t do the kind of believing where you think there’s a supreme being watching over you, you probably also don’t have strong feelings about things that are hard to quantify, like love or compassion or joy.

Like I said, it can be confusing.

what’s in a name: the foreign intelligence surveillance act

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act sounds like something out of Mission: Impossible. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to plant a tiny camera in the lapel pin of a scowling dictator’s personal chef.

Good guess, but no.

FISA isn’t about sneaking into a heavily guarded enemy base — it’s a law that lets the U.S. government spy on Americans any time they’re talking to people in other countries.

There are two interesting things going on with this name. The first one is the word “foreign.” We’ll talk more about that some other day, but the gist is that it divides us from other people. Foreigners talk funny and eat weird things and who knows, maybe they want to kill you, so we’d better keep an eye on them.

The second thing to notice is that the law does the opposite of what it sounds like it does, which is usually a clue that the people who named it don’t want you to think too hard about what they’re really doing. “We’re going to spy on scary foreigners” goes over a lot better with the voting public than “We’re going to spy on you.”