slur

A slur is a word that expresses disdain or hatred for a specific group of people. It’s a bad word for someone who isn’t like you in some way.

There are slurs for all kinds of people — people of every race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, and so on. I could list a wide variety of slurs here to illustrate the point, but you’ve probably heard them all.

Slurs are like other words. Sometimes they’re very powerful. Other times they’re silly or pathetic. Always, in context, they tell you something about the person using them.

Maybe what you learn is that the slur-slinger grew up around other slur-slingers. Maybe it’s that she wants attention. Maybe she believes her right to say whatever she wants at any time is more important than any pain or fear or hatred her words might sow once they exit her mouth.

Maybe she has something funny or insightful to say about language. Maybe she really does think anyone who isn’t exactly like her is not a full human being. People are hard to read sometimes.

If you use slurs for any of these reasons, sometimes people will call you an asshole without learning your life story or patting you on the back for your bravery. Maybe it’s because they don’t appreciate nuance. Or maybe it’s because you are, in fact, an asshole. Like I said, people can be hard to read.

hate

Almost nobody actually hates anything. I mean, maybe they hate olives. That’s reasonable. But they don’t HATE things. Not in the angry, destructive sense of the word.

It’s true. Most people do not hate women, minorities, freedom, jobs, children, education, your religion specifically, or the free market.

Okay?

Hate is a lot of work, and people have their own stuff going on. With a few notable exceptions, they don’t hate you or your friends or the things you like.

When you accuse people of hating things (or other people) and the alleged haters are simply ignorant or selfish or misinformed or even just have an opinion that contradicts one of your opinions, you are basically asking them to ignore you. Your target says to herself, “I don’t hate freedom/jobs/children. That person is insane,” and then stops listening to you because she has her own stuff going on and can’t afford to spend all day explaining herself to crazy people.

And you wouldn’t listen to her, either, if she was accusing you of hating puppies or joy. You’re busy. We all are. We don’t have time for this.

gateway

A “gateway” is an opening in a gate that lets you walk from one side of the gate to the other. You probably knew that already, but hold the image in your mind.

A “gateway drug” is a drug you take (for fun — not because you need it) that supposedly leads you to take other, more dangerous drugs.

The idea is that if you use a “gateway drug,” you are walking through a gate into a place you couldn’t get to before — a place where people use drugs for fun. Once you step through the gate, you’re just as likely to try a super dangerous drug as to keep using the relatively harmless one that opened the gate for you.

You can see the problem: Who says you can’t simply turn around and walk back through the gate? Or hang out just inside the gate without ever feeling tempted to wander over to the “drugs that might kill you and will definitely at least ruin your life” area?

In this sense, a gateway drug is just a slippery slope in disguise.

And you’ve probably noticed that fun (and sometimes dangerous) drugs like alcohol and caffeine are used by huge numbers of people on the “we would never consider using drugs for fun” side of the gate.

So: Why do some of us tell this story about the gate? What is appealing about the idea that people who use certain drugs for certain reasons are different and separate from everyone else?

what’s in a name: the national security agency

The National Security Agency is a part of the U.S. government that spies on people. Some of those people live in other countries and some of them live in the United States.

Usually when governments spy, they do so for one or more of the following reasons: 1. To protect citizens from hostile foreigners; 2. To make sure its own citizens aren’t planning to overthrow the government; 3. To find people who are criticizing the government and encourage them to stop criticizing the government (through intimidation or violence).

We don’t work for the National Security Agency, so we can’t say for sure which of those objectives are on the agency’s mind while it’s spying on everybody. But we did notice that NSA doesn’t stand for National Spying Agency — whoever named it slipped the word “security” in there and didn’t mention spying at all.

Even though everybody knows the NSA is a spying organization, the NSA would rather not have “spying” be the first word out of our mouths when we talk about it. The word NSA people would prefer we use is “security,” as if spying and safety are practically the same thing.

We’ve noticed that when people don’t want you to mention what they do, it’s usually because they don’t want you to think about it.

time for a new word: apologetics

Sometimes the meaning of a word changes right before the eyes of the people who use it most. It changes in a way the most devoted users don’t like, but if they insist on using the word the way they always have, they’ll look ridiculous (or worse) to everybody else.

To these people we say: We are sorry. It’s not fair that this happened to you. But It’s time for a new word.

Today’s victims of the evolution of language: Apologetics.

To the ancient Greeks, an “apologia” was a formal defense of a person or an idea. Eventually, people who tried to convince others that their religion was true or that some piece of writing was good started referring to themselves as “apologetics.” Probably it was an honorable title in the first few centuries AD, but if you’re alive now and reading this and you consider yourself an “apologetic,” I’m afraid I have some bad news.

Today, to the vast majority of English-speaking people, an “apology” is not a defense. It’s the opposite of a defense. If we apologize for an idea, it means we’re sorry about it because it’s stupid or horrible.

So by all means, keep defending the ideas dearest to you. But don’t call yourself an apologetic unless you are comfortable with a lot of people thinking things like “If you have to apologize for your ideas, maybe just get some new ideas?” every time you open your mouth.

Like I said, it isn’t fair. Think it over.

it’s science: you’re a terrible liar

You know how we’re always telling you words can give people away? Like if you hear “reverse racism” (a term that makes no sense because the opposite of racism isn’t more racism — it’s something really nice like a basket full of puppies) you know without looking that a white person said it? Or if a politician says he misspoke, he probably said exactly what he meant but wasn’t expecting you to get so upset about it?

Well, lest you think this whole exercise was a silly waste of energy, once in a while we like to shove some science in your face.

Look at this! These researchers found different patterns of words not only between liars and people who told the truth, but also in people who told different kinds of lies. Really ambitious liars — the people who said demonstrably false things — used more words than truth-tellers, plus they swore a lot. People who lied by omission used fewer words than anyone, as if they were afraid an incriminating piece of information would fly out of their mouths unbidden at any moment if they moved their lips too much.

This study is a lot of fun. But we hasten to add there’s no surefire way to tell if someone is lying to you. Some people are really chatty even when they’re telling the truth, and other people (this monster included) don’t much care for the sound of their own voices. And as I’m sure you know, polygraph machines are bullshit. But if you listen closely, maybe you’ll guess correctly a little more often.