world-class

Sometimes when people try to sell us things, they use words in unusual ways. They do this because they know we won’t call them on it.

World-class is an advertising term that sounds like it means “the envy of everyone in the world.” What it actually means is that someone is trying to sell you something most people have never heard of.

Well, no. What it REALLY actually means is nothing.

Assuming “class” means “category,” then what are the other classes? City-class? State-class? Ocean-class? Space-class? How do you know which class something belongs in? Why is world-class the best class?

These are just a few of the questions nobody ever asks.

spin cycle: sequester

It’s time for yet another installation of Spin Cycle, where we peek at the news through our fingers, see what people are saying, and then throw our laptop through a plate-glass window and quit humanity forever.

“Sequester” means to isolate something. When a jury is sequestered, it means the jurors aren’t allowed to talk to anyone but each other until the trial is over.

There’s another definition of sequester that has to do with seizing somebody’s money (or valuables) until they pay off a debt. In this sense, “sequester” is a euphemism for “take by force.” That’s the one our sneaky friends in the news are using, sort of, except they’re not talking about shaking someone down for cash. They’re talking about using some of the money we used to spend on government programs to pay off part of the government’s debt.

In other (more accurate) words, they’re talking about a series of budget cuts.

Budget cuts are not popular, but everybody understands what they are. “Sequester” is jargon nobody has an opinion about.

See if you can figure this one out. I’m gonna see about getting that window fixed.

foreign

If something is foreign, it doesn’t belong where it is.

A foreign body is an object that shouldn’t be in your body. A foreign person (or foreigner) is someone who shouldn’t be in the country she’s in because she grew up somewhere else.

Applied to people, “foreign” is a lot like “them.” It doesn’t mean much unless you know who said it. Americans are foreign in China, Swedes are foreign in Germany, no one is foreign in their home country, and so on.

But also like “them,” “foreign” can make you feel like you’re in a special club, that you belong where you are and certain other people don’t belong there because they’re not like you.

Be careful with words that do this.

infallible

I am infallible. That means I can never be wrong.

Well, not NEVER. That would be ridiculous. But if I’m standing up here on the internet, speaking to you in my official capacity as The Wordmonster, then I can’t make a mistake. I can’t lie, either. Everything I say is completely true.

It’s not that I’m especially smart or insightful. In fact, my post requires me to be humble. It’s just that an all-knowing benevolent superbeing has chosen me to speak to you on its behalf. So in addition to being true, everything I say is also inherently, unquestionably good.

Is there anything you’d like to ask me?

direct marketing

Hey, you know those garbagey coupon booklets you’ve received in the mail at every place you’ve ever lived? And those oversized glossy advertisements for gyms and big-box stores?

Junk mail, in other words. Mail so undeniably junky that it makes you seriously consider keeping a trash can right next to your mailbox to save yourself the effort of carrying it to the kitchen.

Well, I just wanted to let you know that the people who produce and distribute junk mail don’t call it junk mail. They call it “direct marketing.”

Changing the name of something doesn’t change what it is, but it can change the way people think about it. In this case, though, I suspect the only people the junk mailers are fooling are themselves. And who could blame them? How would you like to be at some party and have to explain in a loud clear voice — just everyone else in the room stops talking — that you make junk mail for a living?

the free market

The free market sounds like the world’s most wholesome farm stand. Deep in the heart of Real America, hard-working farmers compete to sell you the worst possible potato at the highest possible price while you haggle to obtain the best possible potato at the lowest possible price.

It’s supposed to be a metaphor for a capitalist economy. A “market” is a place where people buy and sell stuff, and the “free” part means nobody is supposed to come in and tell the farmers how much to charge for their potatoes or how much to pay their farmhands.

The idea is, if you let people make their own deals, pick out their own potatoes, and just generally stay out of everybody’s business, the market will reach a happy, stable medium. People will buy potatoes at a fair price, farmers will make a profit, and farmhands will be paid exactly what they’re worth.

Whether or not that’s the best way to sell crops is a whole other issue, but one thing is certain: Real-life economies are a lot more complicated than farm stands.

It can be hard for us to talk about what is good for our economy when we call it “the free market” because it makes us think about farmers and potatoes and good honest back-breaking work. Mom and Pop Farmer don’t necessarily have anything to teach us about Uncle Derivatives Trader.