We’ve said it before: Names are important. Today we’re going to talk about a thing called “Inspire,” but first, we’d like you to guess what you think it is. Go ahead. Take your time.
Hmm: “Inspire.” Could it be a chocolate-flavored calcium supplement? A wall calendar with pictures of mountains on it? Maybe a new brand of adult diapers? Good guesses, all, but wrong! It’s actually the name of al Qaeda’s not-so-secret secret newsletter.
That’s right: the people who brought you the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — not to mention countless bombings and kidnappings and general violent mayhem throughout the Middle East — produce a newsletter called Inspire. Not Holy Warriors, The Suicide Vest, or Death to the Infidels Monthly — Inspire.
They don’t use the newsletter to recruit new members. They’re just talking to each other about themselves.
This is important: People never think of themselves as the bad guys or the “extremists” (yikes, we’ll address that word some other time) — even if they are murdering people or encouraging others to do so. Even then they talk about “inspiration” as if it’s a specialty of theirs. We should all think about that every chance we get.
You may have heard that there’s a single Chinese character that means both “crisis” and “opportunity.” You probably heard this from a motivational speaker, your office manager, or your middle-school guidance counselor. It’s a nice story, but it isn’t true.
I mean, none of it is true. The part about the Chinese word for “crisis” isn’t true, and the other part — the part where there’s an opportunity hiding inside every crisis — is also really super not true.
There’s nothing wrong with looking for ways to make a bad situation less bad, but sometimes what you’re dealing with is very clearly a crisis that has no redeeming qualities.
And even if the thing about the Chinese word were true (it isn’t), it wouldn’t mean the two ideas are related in any way. In English, we have a word that means both “shoreline” and “place to put money” and nobody thinks there’s a profound connection between those things.
Here at Wordmonster, we don’t really care what you say as long as you think about the effect your words will have once you release them into the wild. We’re never going to shame you for saying “who” instead of “whom” or for ending your sentence with a preposition or anything like that. That stuff bores us to death.
But sometimes when you talk, we can tell you’re not paying attention.
Like let’s say something really irritating happens. Maybe you lose a pie-eating contest to the worst person you know. And then, with a dismissive wave of your hand, you say you “could care less” that you lost.
What you mean is that you don’t care, but the words you’re saying mean that you DO care. The expression you’re looking for is “couldn’t care less,” which would mean you don’t care at all.
People often say the opposite of what they mean on purpose. But that’s not what you’re doing when you say “could care less.” You’re just repeating a mistake you heard someone else make.
Once you start paying attention to what you say, it will be very difficult to stop.
Success means practically nothing.
Lots of people will tell you they can help you succeed or that they will give you every possible advantage, so if you don’t succeed, it will be your fault.
But what do they mean when they say “success?” What do YOU mean when you say it? What is it you’re trying to succeed at?
If your answer isn’t “getting out of bed” or “finishing that sandwich” or any other task that has a clearly defined beginning and end, you’re never going to succeed.
Even if you said something like “I want to succeed at playing the trumpet,” you’re setting yourself up to fail. Because how will you know when you’re playing the trumpet successfully? Once you know the basics — how to read and play the notes on your sheet music — you’ll start thinking of success as playing something a bit more complicated, and then when you can do that, success will start to look a lot more like playing in an orchestra, and then when you get your first job in the orchestra, you’ll think how much more of a success you’d be if you were a first-chair trumpet player, and once you’re sitting comfortably face-to-stomach with your conductor, you’ll start to wonder about those REALLY successful trumpet players in the London Philharmonic and so on.
“Success” is a dumb thing to strive for, an ever-receding mirage in the dry, dry desert of life. You won’t get there. Learn to play some scales on the trumpet instead. See where it takes you.
A senseless thing is a thing we don’t understand — a thing that doesn’t make sense to us. Since we are humans with tiny brains and we spend our whole lives hurtling through space on a spinning wet rock, we have countless opportunities to use this word. But we almost never do.
We reserve “senseless” for a certain kind of horrible thing. You’ll never hear us mention a senseless tornado, a senseless shark attack, senseless writing, or a senseless disease.
Almost always, when we use the word “senseless” — senseless cruelty, senseless violence — it’s because people are hurting other people. In a cold, dark universe full of baffling things, this is what confuses us the most.
Life insurance sounds like it will keep you alive if something terrible happens. Like health insurance, but more so.
Here is the funny part: Life insurance doesn’t even kick in until you die. It’s a bet you make with an insurance company. You’re betting that you’re going to die soon. If you win (by dying), the insurance company has to give a lot of money to your relatives.
Some things scare us so much that we’re afraid to talk about them. So we pick a word that’s completely different from the thing we’re afraid of and say that instead.
We fear death far more than we fear earthquakes or floods. The people who named life insurance (shortly before attempting to sell it to other people) used this knowledge to their advantage. They knew nobody wanted to talk about dying or think about it or get a bill every month that said “death” on it, so they put a word in there that means the opposite of death.
Oh, sure, they might offer you some accidental death and dismemberment insurance as an afterthought, but “life” is always what gets you in the door.
“Alleged” means “suspected.” If a person is an alleged child molester, it means that one or more people have accused him of molesting children. If something allegedly happened, it means one or more people said it happened.
Journalists use the word “alleged” all the time because it gives them a way to talk about things when they don’t have enough information to say for sure whether a guy is a child molester or whether a thing happened or not. You don’t want to say a guy definitely molested children and then find out he didn’t.
The problem is, if you say a guy allegedly molested some children, nobody is going to remember the “alleged” part later, even if he turns out to be completely innocent. The damage to his reputation is done, “alleged” or not.
The other tricky thing about “alleged” is that you don’t have to say who is doing the alleging. Is it the police? An eyewitness? A conspiracy theorist who was high on crystal meth in a soundproof basement two and a half miles from where he says the incident occurred? It could be anyone. This is yet another reason why it’s important to ask questions.
Sometimes people on TV and the internet talk about “experts.” Experts say this, experts say that. Experts are always saying things.
Some good questions to ask about experts are, “Who are these experts?” and “How do they know all that stuff?”* A good thing to remember about experts is that they are people just like you. Even though they know more than you know about giraffes or airplanes or cancer, sometimes the things they say are wrong.
But when a lot of experts get together, as a group they are wrong (about giraffes, airplanes, cancer, whatever) less often than a group of non-experts.
If you want to be a good guesser, you have to look for patterns. If one cancer expert bets you fifty dollars that jogging cures cancer, you should probably ask a bunch of other cancer experts what they think before you reach for your wallet.
Sometimes a lone expert comes along and blows away all the other experts with a new idea that sounds completely insane, but that’s pretty rare.
*An honest expert will be able to tell you exactly how she knows all that stuff.
You will never hear a public official say, “We’re closing a bunch of elementary schools in poor neighborhoods to save money. Please don’t try to stop us.”
Instead, she might say something like this:
“Consolidating underutilized schools will allow us to safely move these children to a higher-performing welcoming school near their home with all investments they need to thrive in the classroom.”
Look at all those long, lifeless words: consolidating, underutilized, high-performing, investments. Notice the two emotions she asks you to feel: safe and welcome.
People who talk like this — a lot of jargon with a powerful emotion thrown in here and there — are not always misleading you on purpose. Sometimes they have also misled themselves.