Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we talk about the worst things people in the news are saying to us instead of throwing ourselves onto an electric barbed-wire fence.
What do you picture when you hear the term “internal devaluation?” I really tried to picture something. I gave it a good honest try. But the only thing I could imagine was seven billion pairs of human eyes glazing over.
When you run into a term like “internal devaluation” — boring, vague, full of bland syllables — you should fight the urge to fall asleep in your chair because it usually means that the person speaking to you is hoping you won’t notice something important. It’s like she’s saying, “HEY, DON’T LOOK OVER HERE. It’s super boring and you probably wouldn’t understand anyway.”
Don’t listen to her. You’re smart. Go on, have a look.
Europe is short on cash. Some countries are trying to fix this problem by “easing regulations” on businesses (or “stripping away workers’ rights,” depending on who is speaking), which the countries hope will make the businesses more profitable, which would bring some extra money into the local economies. They’re calling the regulation-easing/rights-stripping policy changes “internal devaluation.”
So: What’s being “devalued” is work. Or people. Depending on who’s speaking.
Somehow, “garnish” means both “the little decorative things chefs sometimes put on the plate with the rest of your food” and “to take money out of your paycheck without your permission to pay off your debts.”
We don’t know how this happened. The two ideas aren’t related at all. But it’s the second meaning we’re interested in, because it makes “garnish” one of those special words that doesn’t sound anything like what it actually means.
Sometimes we use words to distance ourselves from our actions.
If you and I were in charge of getting money from people who weren’t paying their debts, we might find it easier to get through the day if we never had to say words like “seize” or “steal” or “take by force.” It’s a lot easier to say, “We garnished your wages because you defaulted on your loan” than it is to say, “We’re taking your last little bit of money and giving it to somebody else.”
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.
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.
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.
See if you can spot what all of these terms have in common: Big Government, Big Pharma, Big Oil.
That’s right. It’s the word “big.”
“Big Government” refers to the idea that when a government tries to do too many things, it gets carried away like an overbearing boss who can’t keep his nose out of your projects. Some people believe this idea is correct. “Big Pharma” refers to the pharmaceutical industry, which some people believe is responsible for horrors such as repressing information that might cure cancer so that it can sell more cancer-treatment drugs. “Big Oil” refers to the oil industry. Or lobbyists for the oil industry. It refers to a group of people for whom personal profit, even at great cost to others, is the most important thing in the world.
You’re very smart, so you’ve probably already spotted the other thing these terms have in common. They all suggest a single-minded conspiracy of powerful people who don’t care about you. They want your money or they want to control you. They are meeting in dark rooms and and smoking cigars.
It’s true that groups of people can do a lot of damage in the world if they work together, but it’s also very difficult to find any group of people wherein everyone is an evil genius. Most people are not cackling in the dark, looking for new ways to harm or oppress you. They have their own stuff going on.
A fundamentalist is a person who adheres strictly to a set of religious tenets. The people who made up the word meant for it to sound simple and true: Fundamentals. Back to basics. None of this newfangled loosey-goosey stuff.
Unfortunately for them, it has also come to mean “rigid, unreasonable people who are convinced they’re right all the time.”
So an updated definition of “fundamentalist” might be: a person who adheres strictly to ANY set of beliefs, religious or otherwise.
But if you pay attention to the way people actually use it, you may find that what they mean by “fundamentalist” is often: a person whose beliefs are very different from mine.
The Tea Party is a branch of the U.S. Republican Party. Its name is a reference to the Boston Tea Party.
This is the story of the Boston Tea Party, as told to American children:
Way back at the dawn of civilization (1773), the English government made
British colonists Americans pay taxes even though they didn’t have any say in how their tax money would be spent. Eventually the colonists Americans got sick of it, so they threw a bunch of tea into Boston Harbor before the English government had a chance to sell/tax it. The whole thing was very funny because English people love tea.
The people in the Tea Party have a lot of opinions about taxes. This is the story they want you to tell yourself every time you hear their name: They’re just like the scrappy pre-historic Americans, demanding a say in the national budget.
Here at Wordmonster, we are not experts in human behavior. We are not experts in anything. But we have noticed that people who tell flattering stories about themselves are often delusional or at least unbearably self-absorbed. Watch them closely.