attitude

Your attitude is the way you feel about something.

If someone says you have a “good attitude,” what they mean is that you pay more attention to the good things that are happening than the bad things, or that even when only bad things are happening, you don’t complain.

A “bad attitude” is different. People with bad attitudes complain. They crack mean jokes and sneer at anyone who looks too happy.

Without passing judgment on either of these dispositions, you can see the problem with labelling one “good” and the other “bad” — every situation is different. Sometimes the bad thing to do is keep your head down, follow the rules, and pretend nothing is wrong, and the good thing to do is break a few rules as loudly as you can.

You can also see why someone who was responsible for a bad situation would divide attitudes into “good” and “bad” like this. People who do what she says without complaint are good, and people who undermine her authority are bad.

intelligence

Intelligence is the ability to use your brain in a particular way — to learn things and then use the knowledge for some practical purpose. It’s also a euphemism for information gathered by spies.

So if the president of a large country says “the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations,” what he means is, “Everybody spies.”

Which is true. Every country on the planet employs spies. But “intelligence” sounds nicer than spying, doesn’t it? We’re not spying on you. We’re collecting “intelligence.” We’re learning.

There’s a reason people who employ spies talk this way. It’s because they want you to picture a lot of studious people doing boring, complicated research so you don’t have to — a public service, really. They don’t want you to think about people using dishonest means to find out things they’re not supposed to know. Which is what spies do.

elite

Elite means best. Well, it used to mean best.

In recent years, the words “elite” and “elitist” have come to mean something more like “people who think (incorrectly) that they are better than everyone else.”

People who are accused of being “elite” in this sense usually have a lot of something their accusers don’t, like money or knowledge. So: the Wall Street elite and the academic elite.

Elite isn’t quite a slur, but it’s usually meant to make you dislike the “elite” person, to make you think he or she is different, not to be trusted, out of touch with regular people like you.

The word doesn’t tell you anything about the allegedly elite person, but it does reveal a few things about the people who say it. For example: They are uncomfortable with the idea that people are all basically the same, even people who have a lot of something they don’t have. Or: They are just repeating a thing they heard someone else say.

simple

If someone goes out of his or her way to tell you something is simple, it probably isn’t. And if you pay attention, I think you’ll find that the more elaborate the sentence containing the word “simple” is (It’s simple! It’s incredibly simple! It’s so simple a child could understand it!), the less likely “it” is to be simple.

If something is truly simple, there’s no need to mention its simplicity. It’s obvious to everyone. A button is simple: You push it. Nobody talks about it.

Here are some things that are not simple or obvious: How governments should budget their money. What, if anything, people should do to address the horrible things their ancestors did to their neighbors’ ancestors. When, if ever, it is acceptable to force any group of people to do anything they don’t want to do.

If you encounter a person who is convinced any of these things are simple, it’s probably because that person doesn’t cope well with complexity. Maybe you can help him. Be as patient as you can.

chemicals

A chemical substance is a stable arrangement of atoms. Almost everything you care about is made of chemicals: People, trees, computers, prescription-strength antihistamines, tacos — all that stuff.

Some chemicals, like cyanide, can kill you. Other chemicals, like water and sodium, keep you alive (but can also kill you), and still others don’t affect you much at all — at least not in the amounts you’re likely to find them.

I’m telling you this in case you are afraid of chemicals. Being afraid of chemicals is like being afraid of people. Some people would definitely harm you given the chance, but others would give you a big slice of chocolate cake or fix the leaky pipe under your sink.

Like people, chemicals are not necessarily bad for you. If you want to know whether a person or a chemical is dangerous, you’ll have to do a little detective work. Google it. Read some books. Ask a chemist.

inmate

“Inmate” is a euphemism for “prisoner.” Prisoners are people held by force in places they don’t want to be — jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers (child jails), places like that.

There are a few different reasons you might want to call someone an “inmate” rather than a “prisoner,” even though the two words mean exactly the same thing. One is: Maybe you or someone you love is a prisoner, so to distract yourself from how horrible that is, you call the predicament by another name.

Or maybe you work for an organization that imprisons people — a police force, a government entity, or a branch of the military — and you’re hoping to convince yourself the prisoners don’t have it so bad. “Inmates” sounds friendly by comparison, almost like the prisoners could leave if they wanted to. They’re inmates. They’re fine. The system that brought them here is fine.

Here is another reason you might say “inmate” when you mean “prisoner:” Names are important. Maybe if you call people “inmates,” you’ll see their humanity a little more clearly than you’d see it if you called them “prisoners.” Maybe you’ll treat them with more respect.

It’s best not to jump to conclusions.

authentic

Authentic means genuine. Genuine means real. Real means … actual? Existing? Don’t worry: There won’t be a philosophy test at the end of this post.

Words like “authentic” and “genuine” are supposed to make you feel like you’re getting the best possible version of something: authentic handicrafts, authentic mayonnaise, authentic salsa-dancing lessons, etc. More than that, you’re supposed to feel that other versions of the authentic thing are cheap imitations. They are tasteless, soulless, and hastily assembled.

And you, you’re smart enough to know the difference. You have great taste. You know how things are supposed to be.

Like most stories people tell you when they want you to buy things, this one is completely fictional.

the pledge

A pledge is a promise. The Pledge of Allegiance — also known as “The Pledge” — is a loyalty oath to the United States of America. Children recite The Pledge every morning at school. Adults recite it at baseball games and a few other places.

There are some weird things about The Pledge. Like: You say The Pledge to the American flag. Really! It begins, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” The flag is supposed to be a metaphor for the country, but if there’s a flag in the room when you’re saying The Pledge, you’re supposed to face the flag as if you are talking to it.

Some people think it’s weird that The Pledge calls the United States “one nation under God,” since the U.S. government isn’t supposed to favor any particular religion. Also, for people who don’t believe God exists, it might feel weird to say God is watching over the nation.

But here at Wordmonster, we think the weirdest thing about The Pledge is that we make children say it over and over, every day, for years before they know what half the words in it mean. Why would we do that?

civil disobedience

When someone breaks a law because she thinks the law is stupid, we call it “civil disobedience.” Well, there’s a little more to it than that. Usually the lawbreaker believes the law is immoral or unfair, or she’s breaking one law to draw attention to some other issue she feels very strongly about.

We’ll tell you who made up the term in a moment, but first: Do you think he was on the side of the lawbreaker or the law defender? Let’s explore the possibilities:

On one hand, “disobedience” is a word usually directed at children and unruly dogs, so it’s easy to imagine a politician using “civil disobedience” to dismiss an impassioned political statement from his or her enemies: If you refuse to give up your seat to protest racist transportation laws or you chain yourself to the mailbox at the CEO of Blackwater’s house to protest mercenary violence, you are essentially peeing on the bookcase or staying up past your bedtime. Run along now.

But on the other hand, “civil disobedience” has more than twice as many syllables in it as “criminal,” which means it could be a euphemism intended to elicit sympathy from one’s potential jailers. “I’m not a criminal, Your Honor. I only broke Jimmy’s crayons in half because he kept trying to legislate away my human rights.”

Turns out, the term came from an American writer who often encouraged people to break rules they thought were stupid. Our kind of guy.