spin cycle: defense of marriage act

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we experience a full range of emotions about the way people in the news are talking to us.

Maybe you’ve heard of this thing, the Defense of Marriage Act. It sounds very serious, like marriage has been kidnapped by a hostile foreign element and is being waterboarded this very moment.

The word “defense” implies an attacker, an infiltrator, an opponent. In this case, the implied attackers are gay people who want to marry each other. So the Defense of Marriage Act defends marriage from people who want to be married. Great work so far, but there’s more:

Since marriage isn’t a person you can torture or a landmark you can destroy but a thing people do, the most obvious way to attack it would be to stop people from doing it. Right?

DOMA doesn’t exactly stop people from getting married, but it does allow states to strip married couples of their rights. Only gay couples, though. Not straight ones.

The Defense of Marriage Act doesn’t defend marriage. It defends bigots. But the Defense of Bigots Act never would have made it to the president’s desk.

social security

The U.S. government gives money to retired people (and a few other qualifying groups) through a program called Social Security. Here’s how it works:

When you have a job, the government takes money out of your paycheck and gives it to the Social Security program, which then gives the money to people who have retired (or can’t work for some other reason). If the program still exists when you retire, you’ll get money from people who are still working.

You may have noticed that the name of the program is not very descriptive. There’s nothing in it about taxes or retirees. Instead, we get the words “social” (friendly!) and “security” (protection!).

In general, people who like Social Security call it Social Security, and people who don’t like it call it “entitlement,” a term that also doesn’t have anything in it about taxes or retirees.

There are two competing stories here: 1. Social Security is a friendly way to protect old people. 2. Spoiled old people are taking your money because they didn’t bother to save any of their own (or because they’re greedy).

When you hear two very different stories that are supposedly about the same thing, it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about the subject. Sometimes one of the stories is clearly right and sometimes they’re both wrong.


Quantum physics is the branch of physics that deals with the smallest things in the universe. If you know how it works, you can prove that particles can be two places at once. It is weird and counterintuitive and completely supported by all available evidence. Seriously, go read up on it (or just watch all of these) — it’ll blow your face off.

When something is exciting and strange and difficult to understand, a lot of people who don’t understand it will tell you they DO understand it and that if you give them some money, they’ll share the secret with you. This isn’t a law of physics, but it should be.

You might be thinking: “But Wordmonster, you just told me that quantum physics proves particles can be two places at once. Why should I believe that?”

Easy: You shouldn’t. Go learn about it from people who aren’t trying to sell you a book or a miracle diet or a solution to all of your problems. Put in the work. You won’t be sorry.

devil’s advocate

I completely agree with everything you’re saying. I’m just playing “devil’s advocate.”

You and I, we’re basically soldiers in the army of light and truth. But let’s just say the Father of Lies was in here with us and he wouldn’t shut up about some apparent flaw in your reasoning. What would you say to him?

Even if you don’t believe in all that fire and brimstone stuff, the hypothetical devil can be an excellent ally in an argument.

Maybe you agree with the person you’re talking to and you’re looking for tips on how to win future arguments with less enlightened people. Or maybe your opponent has a fragile ego. You can flatter her by saying, “You’re so great that only the embodiment of pure evil would ever consider disagreeing with you.”

But by far the best thing the devil can do for you — if someone is willing to speak up on his behalf — is to help you see things from another point of view. Think about your opinions as if they were crazy, your arguments as if they were full of holes. Some of them probably are.

I mean, the devil might say they are. Not me. I think you’re brilliant.

words we need: bullet dodged

There are only so many things humans can experience. Even when there isn’t a direct translation of a word from one language to another, people will usually get the idea if you explain it. They’ve probably felt something similar.

As far as we know, there’s no English word that precisely captures the combination of the rush of adrenaline and the intense relief, jubilation, and slight wobbling of the knees we feel when we have narrowly avoided some kind of disaster. Maybe we almost slipped on the ice but recovered at the last possible second, swerved just in time to avoid a 19-car pile-up, or caught something breakable, inches above the ground.

If there is a word for this (in English or any other language) and you know what it is, tell us on Twitter. We promise we’ll give you all the credit.


The word “sacred” can mean “imbued with some kind of power by a supreme being” (like: a sacred place, a sacred ritual, a sacred word).

It can also describe a thing you are not allowed to question.

It’s interesting that we use the same word for both of these ideas.

When one word means two different things, it can be hard for us to separate the meanings from each other, even if they’re not really related.

Here at Wordmonster, we don’t like it when people tell us not to question things. When we feel so strongly about something that questioning it seems ridiculous or rude, that’s exactly when we question it the hardest. If the thing is really as great — or as terrible or awe-inspiring — or as real as we say, it should be able to withstand any question we throw at it.

That doesn’t mean we don’t trust our feelings. It’s just how we do things.

what’s in a name: crisis pregnancy center

Imagine a “crisis fire center” that would talk to you about the fire inside your house — and may even offer to replace your charred sofa — but wouldn’t, under any circumstances, help you put out the fire.

That’s the basic idea, here.

A “crisis pregnancy center” sounds like a place you can go if you’re pregnant and something is wrong. Something like you’re poor or sick or worried your family might disown you. Some kind of crisis.

What it actually is is a place you can go if you’re pregnant and you want to read some religious literature about abortion and maybe get a free sonogram. There are no social workers, police officers, psychologists, doctors, or lawyers around.

It’s almost as if these places are deliberately misleading vulnerable people.

old words: the final solution

Welcome to the first installment of Old Words, where we talk about horrible things people said a long time ago. We’re not here to judge the people who fell for this stuff, but we will try to learn from their mistakes.

Today’s Old Words: The Final Solution.

In case you don’t know the story: Once upon a time, a maniacal dictator was in charge of Germany. He decided to commit genocide, but was afraid the people of Germany might call him on it. So he called his genocide plan “The Final Solution.”

We told you it was going to be horrible.

Now: Our maniacal dictator was able to build up an army and kill millions of people for a lot of complicated reasons. If you really want to appreciate how he rose to power and held onto it for so long, it helps to know some world history, some political science, some economics, and a whole bunch of social psychology.*

Fortunately, you don’t need to know about any of those subjects to be wary of something called “The Final Solution.” You don’t even have to know that the proposed solution was to execute people. You just have to think about the words.

“The solution” would be suspicious all by itself — it’s rare for a problem to have only one solution. “Final” clinches it. The final solution? There will be no problems after this? That seems very unlikely. And then obviously if you get far enough into the pitch to find out that the “solution” to all problems is genocide, that’s your cue to stop asking questions and start running.**

*Still, M. Dictator chose his words very carefully. He even hired a words guy to help. We’ll talk about him some other time.

**From now on, we mean. From now on, if the person in charge of your country tells you your neighbor is responsible for all of society’s problems (and your personal problems) and should die, pack up your things and go. Just go.