dog whistle

A dog whistle is a whistle that dogs can hear but humans can’t. “Dog whistle” also refers to a word or phrase that is like a secret code for something else.

Here is how the first kind of dog whistle works: A human blows into the whistle and any dogs that have been trained to respond to it come running. Nearby humans don’t hear anything.

The second kind of dog whistle works basically the same way. A human says a special word or phrase into a microphone, and the people who have been trained to respond to it come running. The word or phrase is common, so the rest of the people listening don’t hear it in the same way.

The idea is: People are as easily manipulated by words as dogs are by the whims of the people they are inclined to be loyal to. Here at Wordmonster, we think that’s probably true. But there is an obvious problem with this expression: No one ever thinks of him- or herself as one of the silly, bounding, slobbering dogs. Verbal dog whistles are for other people — people who don’t think.

It’s never a good idea to flatter yourself.


Support means help, but we’ll get back to that in a minute. First I want to know if you ever read the labels on the pills you buy. Like to see how much iron is in your iron tablets or how often you’re supposed to take your maximum-strength cold medicine.

Iron tablets and cold medicine have something in common: They address specific problems in your body. If you have a cold, the cold medicine will clear out your sinuses and lessen the pain in your muscles and throat while your immune system sorts out the virus. If you’re feeling weak because your blood doesn’t have enough iron in it, iron tablets will bring your levels up to normal and your symptoms will go away.

See? Very specific. Now: “support.”

When a label says that some pills “support your immune system,” the people who wrote the label want you to imagine that the pills are like little personal trainers, shouting at your immune system to run faster or lift more or stretch farther — whatever it takes to make your immune system stronger.

But the way your immune system actually gets stronger is by trying to rid your body of stuff that doesn’t belong in it: viruses, bacteria, toxins, that kind of thing.

So: Vitamins don’t support your immune system. A flu shot supports your immune system.

If you see the word “support” on a bottle of pills in the United States, chances are pretty good that those pills were not designed to fix a problem in your body. That’s because the word “support” is so vague that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lets basically anyone — even people who have been caught lying about the things their pills can do — print it on a pill bottle.

spin cycle: the affordable care act v. obamacare

Welcome back to Spin Cycle! We’re not here to start a fight about health insurance, but we would like you to notice the words that are vying for your attention in the news — especially, in this case, if you are a U.S. citizen.

There is a new law about health insurance in the States. Its official name is “The Affordable Care Act” because the people who write the laws also get to name them. The story this name tells us is that, under the law, we will be able to afford care (notice: “care” — not “insurance” — because care sounds really nice, like a bowl of chicken noodle soup someone else made for you when you had a really bad cold, whereas “insurance” sounds like a guy in a very expensive suit explaining why you have to pay for your own ambulance ride).

The nickname some people have given to the law is “Obamacare.” This name tells a story, too, but the story you hear depends on what you already think about President Obama. Your bias will affect how the word makes you feel.

If you like him, the story you hear is: “Presidents have been trying to pass a law like this for decades, and our guy finally did it. He’s the best!”

If you don’t like him, the story you hear every time you hear “Obamacare” goes something more like: “Cults of personality are dangerous, and this guy is using his celebrity status to further his crazy political agenda.”

When something you see in the world seems to confirm something you already think, it’s a good idea to try to prove yourself wrong.


An accident is something that happens even though nobody intended for it to happen. It’s also a euphemism for “crash” — instead of saying “car crash,” we say “car accident.”

It’s easy to see why we like “accident” better than “crash.” A crash is very serious and scary. People can be hurt or killed, and cars — which usually seem stable and safe and strong and completely under our control — can be mangled beyond recognition.

We use euphemisms to avoid unpleasant thoughts. Everyone knows that “car accident” means “car crash,” but we say “accident” because it sounds nicer — more like knocking over a glass of water at dinner than the sound of a windshield shattering against the pavement.

This is important: With euphemisms, you don’t have to imagine how the thing you’re avoiding looks or feels or sounds. Some euphemisms are invented precisely to prevent you from imagining those things.

spin cycle: textbooks

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we watch/read/listen to the news and then spend at least three hours reading all the source material for the Wikipedia page on lobotomies.

Sometimes people in the news use words we wouldn’t use: vague or purposely misleading words. Other times, they don’t say enough words — they make something sound very simple when it isn’t or leave out important pieces of information that might change the way you feel about the words they did use.

Did you see this story? The headline is, “To Shape Young Palestinians, Hamas Creates Its Own Textbooks.”

Even before you read the story, you can probably guess what it says. A group of people that is best known in most of the world for being the violent, scary kind of religious is writing its own versions of history and politics and teaching that stuff to children.

Some words you won’t find in that story are: Every country does this. Every version of the past and present is rife with biases. There are varying degrees of accuracy, of course. And some authors try very hard to see things from more than one point of view. But a lot of them don’t.

Here is how textbooks work: We tell children to read the chapters, then answer the questions at the end. A better assignment would be: Fact-check the chapters, then come up with some questions of your own.