Dan Rants...

About misuse of language, urban legends, superstitions, etc. ad nauseam!

Listen Carefully

In their misuse of language, people often reveal more of their feelings about a topic than they intend. An attentive listener (or reader) can discern nuance that the speaker (or writer) might prefer to hide. Read on...

Five-Dollar Word

Choice of words is one such misuse. Sometimes a speaker chooses a large word when a small one would do.

For example, the word "utilize" is often used in place of the more economical "use". Similarly, "indicated" is sometimes used where "said" would do. By employing the larger word, the speaker exposes his or her sense of the inadequacy of the subject. For example, this is common in sales contexts, e.g., "This (mundane) product utilizes an (unremarkable) technique (or component, etc.)..." It reveals that the speaker believes that the product is actually inadequate and must be hyped.

Another example is the use of "individual" (or "citizen" or "gentleman") instead of "person", "man", or "woman" in recounting an event. It reveals that the speaker doubts his or her own veracity or credibility and seeks to bolster it with pomposity. "Yes, officer, I observed this individual jaywalking just a couple of hundred yards up the street over there..."

A third example of unconscious puffery is the use of the word home when house is intended. This substitution has crept into common parlance as a result of marketing efforts by the real estate sales industry. Calling a property a home instead of a house warms it up and increases its unconscious appeal though, as everyone knows, "it takes a heap o' living to make a house a home" and the judgment as to whether the heap o' living has indeed occurred in a particular structure is subjective. Nonetheless, a newspaper headline will proclaim, for example, "Fire destroys 10 homes." The actual fact being reported is that fire destroyed ten houses. Some may have been vacant or only briefly occupied and hence were not homes. The puffery detracts from the precision of the reportage.

Here's a fourth one: saying "multiple" when you mean "several". It sounds bigger. Yet, "multiple" is appropriate only for describing quantities of things that are usually singular. "Several" is appropriate for things that are commonly had in quantity. For example, it would be appropriate to say, "It took me several attempts to get through to the helpdesk," but saying "multiple attempts" seems to emphasize the drama. The storyteller wants the listener to grasp the misery of the situation and thus chooses hyperbolic language. The unwitting message is that the storyteller is not confident that plain English suffices to convey the magnitude of the experience. To my ear, the effect is exactly the opposite.

This one is obvious: "In no way, shape, or form." The speaker could simply have said, "No." I guess they thought that if they sounded like a lawyer their words might carry more weight. To my ear it is instead bombast.

Want another? Ok, here's number six: "efficient and effective". People love to write (and utter) this pair of words. For example, "We must make our systems both efficient and effective." What the words mean, of course, is simply "cheap and good". But somehow the alliterative, polysyllabic jargon endows with new power these simple notions.

I could go on all day... And indeed I shall. How about this one: An annoying and often inappropriate metaphor is that of "aiming" or "targeting," e.g. "This new product is aimed at the elderly consumer," or, "This service targets the youth market." The metaphor, of course, is shooting. Is it really our intent to wound or kill our customers? Do we really experience releasing a product or delivering a service like firing a weapon? The metaphor is wrong. Firing a shot is a brief action and once fired the trajectory of the projectile is beyond our control. By contrast, making, selling, and delivering products and services is a lengthy and ongoing process. It extends over time and during that time we can exert guidance and influence. And we hope it's not so violent!

"Methodology!" Argh! This means a collection or analysis of a set of methods but people seem to use it when they mean one method. They say methodology instead of method because they think it makes them sound smarter.

Tortured Syntax

Not only the choices of words but also sentence structures reveal to the careful listener a speaker's inner feelings about a topic. Often, a contorted or ungrammatical sentence exposes ambivalence, a disconnect between what the speaker is attempting to say and what he or she actually believes.

For example, here is a sign posted over the "head" (toilet) in a sailboat (marine toilets are delicate):

Use this head only for what it
was intended, not a wastebasket.

Of course, the author meant "as" instead of "for". The tortured syntax reveals embarassment to enumerate the items that would be appropriately flushed down the head.

The contortion of such sentences is often achieved by means of what might be called the "shifting subject." (Expert linguists probably have a more accurate technical term.) In a well-formed sentence, there is a single subject (or direct object) and it remains unchanged for the entire sentence. In the example above, the direct object of the sentence is at first the items that might be discarded in the head but at the end of the sentence the direct object has become the head itself.

Another example is from George W. Bush (an endless source of tortured syntax) in the New York Times on May 26th, 2006, on the subject of the dwindling popularity of his war in Iraq:

I mean, when you turn on your TV screen
and see innocent people
die day in and day out,
it affects the mentality of our country.

The subject of this sentence shifts from "you" to "images of innocent people dying" (which also happens to be plural despite the singular noun "it"). This reveals that, despite his calculated insouciance, the President is indeed experiencing inner dissonance on this topic.

Very Trying

A classic language "trick" is the use of the word "try". For example:
"Would you please get your work done?"
"I'll try."
"I'll try to call you next week."
Though everyone knows "try" really means "no" or "I won't," many people continue to use it. Why? To fool themselves into thinking that they've said no in a nice way. Of course, there is no nice way. If you mean no, just say it.

Jedi Master Yoda said it well:

"Do or do not. There is no try."


Here's one of my favorites. It's used everywhere in our American culture to assuage our guilt about consuming resources and polluting the environment and, of course, to sell "green" products. Such products (we say) are "good for the environment." False! But comforting.

Driving a fuel-efficient car is not good for the environment. It's merely less bad than driving a guzzler.

Recycling bottles and cans is not good for the environment. It's merely less bad than not recycling them.

Buying products made from "post-consumer" materials is not good for the environment. It merely exacts a slightly smaller toll than would buying products made from "virgin" materials.

And so on... In our so-called environmentally-conscious society, the examples are endless.

Of course it is better to be environmentally conscious, to leave a smaller footprint. Do opt for "green" products. But do not conflate harm reduction with positive action.

TV Buys and Sells... You!

For most Americans, television is the primary news source. Most would agree that the mission statement for news shows would include at least some degree of integrity, and some effort toward investigation and delivering truth.

They'd be wrong. The mission of news (and all other) shows is to sell advertising time. The rates they charge are determined by how many eyeballs they deliver.

The "consumer" of TV is not the viewers, it's the advertisers. They're the ones who foot the bill.

The "product" of TV is not the shows, it's the audience. That's you, my TV-watching friends. You are being bought and sold. Have some self-respect! Ditch the boob tube!

Carbs? Shut Up!

Simple sugars and refined grain products (bread, pasta, cake, packaged snacks) are a different kind of food than fruits, vegetables and legumes. The body processes them differently, and they have different effects. Yet both are correctly termed carbohydrates.

Thus, talk about whether "carbs" are good or bad -- to be eaten or avoided according to the fad-of-the-month -- is meaningless. Some are indeed healthful; others are substantially less so, perhaps even detrimental. It makes no sense to speak of them (regarding their nutritive properties) collectively.

Want to sound like you know something about nutrition? Stop babbling about "carbs"!

Government Waste!

Government is incompetent, inefficient, ineffectual. The opposite of business. Everybody knows this; in our American culture it's dogmatic.

Except that it's not true. In government there is the same mix of worker bees and slackers as in the business world, and the same resource and budget constraints. At [nameless corporations] I have been made to complete forms in triplicate so I know first-hand the business world has no less than government a penchant for bureaucracy.

Don't believe the dogma. As a nation we are uniquely tight-fisted taxpayers. With government as with everything else, we get what we pay for.

Shaving for Dummies

Surprisingly stupid. We men do this day after day -- you'd think we'd think it through. You'd be wrong.

Look at this guy. Two out of three of his items are superfluous. First, the shaving cream. Wetting the hairs makes them softer for the razor to slice through. If you shave in the shower, your face is already wet! The cream is redundant.

Second, the mirror. Doesn't he know yet where his facial features are located? Gee, I can find mine even in the dark... and I'm no Einstein.

The only essential item is the razor. Oh well, one out of three... Must be a guy thing.

But what do I know? Here's another guy's opinion.

From: "Brian Howell"

Let's talk about shaving. Contrary to your rant, shaving cream has multiple purposes:

* To lubricate the face to prevent razor burn. Water alone is usually not a sufficient lubricant.
* To further soften whiskers to facilitate their easy cutting.
* To cause whiskers to swell which helps to erect the whiskers. Both effects help make it easier for the blade to cut the whiskers. As a side effect, the swollen whisker protrudes further from its folicle resulting in a closer smoother shave--because when the whisker dries out, its newly-cut tip recedes into the folicle. Thus the face is smoother longer and "5 o'clock shadow" is delayed.

And another...

From: "Phil Glatz"

It's also ritual, which helps relax the mind.

I like a brush and mug; there are plenty of good soaps commercially, and my wife makes me one up from goat milk.

A very nice kind that comes in the can is Aveeno, which is designed for folks with sensitive skin (and it isn't very expensive).

If I'm in a hurry, I'll lather up with good old Dr. Bronner's peppermint, which also leaves the skin nice and tingly.

The secret for me is to shave immediately after taking a hot shower, which makes the follicles stand at attention.

Look at movies from the thirties; every barber shop had a steaming towel machine; soaking a small towel or washcloth in very hot water and applying it to the face also does a nice prep job. (I've always wanted one of those old-time shave).

As for the mirror, some mornings I need a reminder that it's still me.

And I'm still sticking with my Mercur double-edged razor; you won't get a better shave except with an old-fashioned barber's blade.

And yet another...

From: "Joe Miller"

Shaving cream -- it's a scam!

I stopped using shaving cream 20 years ago. I shave with water only, and its fine, works great. I think it's one of those things... you get used to shaving cream and its 'normal'. Overall, shaving cream is much more of a bother, really.

Not needing it is a freeing experience... no need to buy it, no need to get more when you run out, it doesn't take up room in your bathroom, and one less thing to take with you when you travel.

I remember long ago... one shaving cream actually numbed my face ... some ingredient designed to make shaving truly pain free even if you nick your face I guess.

And even another...

From: "Steve Warren"

I'm a firm believer that some sort of lubricant is better than none. Shaving with water alone? Brutal! I use soap. Inexpensive. Don't need to travel with it. Depending on your brand of choice, it might even create a similar lather to some shaving creams.

I do it in the shower with no mirror. Feel your face!

Evidently, shaving is a human endeavor rife with superstitions (see header)... mine included... you might even call them religious dogmas. And, as everyone knows, you can beat a dogma with a stigma.

Regulate the Other Guy, Not Me!

Regulation increases costs, reduces efficiency, and should be eliminated. Unless, of course, it protects something I care about, like clean water or safe products...

This is dogma from the conservative playbook that proclaims that any time the government is involved, it is bad, as though regulation in and of itself is evil.

Indeed, regulation is one of the essential functions of government. Our lives would be much the worse without it.

Lawyers and lawsuits run amuck and awards are absurd. See this article about my cousin Bob: Is Litigation a Blight or Built-In? (New York Times, 11/23/2002)

Corollary: the infamous McDonalds coffee lawsuit, favorite hot-button rallying cry of the right wing. But read the facts (Wikipedia, Legal News and Views, many more. And don't give boiling liquids to people in cars. But if you do, and they're willing to settle for medical expenses, be grateful and pay up.)

I'm not anti-business -- far from it! -- but it is obvious that businesses possess resources that individuals rarely do. The sad truth is that our painful, expensive legal system is often consumers' only recourse.

We Can't Say Why but We Know It's Risky!

It's risky to identify ourselves on our answering machines, in our voicemail messages, or when we answer the phone. Somebody bad could do something bad if they heard us say our name on our greeting. We can't say what it is, but it's awful bad.

Also, we never leave our subscription address labels on the magazines we donate to our libraries, health clubs, and dentists' waiting rooms. Any of these things could reveal our names or addresses to strangers. The inevitable consequences would be too horrific to contemplate. If we could think of any.

TV Doesn't Tell Me What to Think!

TV lies. Advertisements, political messages and propaganda, and sound bites are, of course, self-serving. But ultimately they provide the foundations for our opinions. Despite our superficial cynicism, on a deeper level we trust our media in a naive belief that there is, in the end, some duty of integrity.

Look at it another way: if TV propaganda were indeed ineffectual, why would advertisers and politicians spend millions on it?

I don't know anyone who would admit that their beliefs are driven by TV. After all, everyone knows that TV lies. And so do they.

Weirdos at the Gym!

Never make eye contact in a locker room. Everyone knows that even the fanciest health clubs are crawling with desperate (homosexual? heterosexual? asexual? polysexual? pick your phobia...) predators. Never acknowledge them nor say even the merest hello. Especially the ones who appear to attend, week after week, according to a schedule like your own. If, perchance, one of them happens to smile or, worse yet, utter something at you, mumble something, move away as quickly as you can, and don't let this happen again.

It All Ends Up in the Same Place!

In the supermarket's produce section, "smart" shoppers choose only flawless fruit and vegetables. A bruised peach? Disgusting! An apple with a wormhole? Unacceptable!

Fruit with even a single flaw goes unsold. How many more millions of pounds of insecticide must farmers dump on their crops each year to eliminate that last bug?

It's time to re-educate us consumers. Before we drown ourselves in a sea of poison.

Big Brother is watching YOU! Keep Your Laws Off My Body!

And as long as we're griping, here's another (and I ain't no flaming libertarian right-winger, neither!) --

Keep government out of:

  1. Doctors' offices (abortion, right-to-die, etc.)

  2. Bedrooms (victimless crimes, consenting adults, gay marriage, etc.)

  3. Research labs (stem cells, etc.)

  4. My computer (internet, encryption, etc.)

  5. My telephone (wiretaps, etc.)
Especially THIS government!

click to
            enlarge Punctuation! Typesetting! Sentences that Make Sense!

What is it that absolves the authors of public signs from the conventions of ordinary printed language? F'rinstance, why the bizarre capitalization, underline, font changes, etc. in signs such as the one at left (from San Francisco's Muni (municipal transit service))?

What do you suppose is the purpose of this sign, anyway? That I mustn't get mad at the blind person for bringing their dog on the bus? For bringing all five of their dogs? Perhaps it's to let the blind people know that's ok... if only they could read it. It's a good thing Muni told us.


Littering is often confused with pollution and environmental degradation.

A candy wrapper on the sidewalk may be aesthetically offensive but it's not the real issue. From nature's point of view, the insult is the sidewalk itself, the street itself, indeed the entire city. Think of the acres of nature, flattened and eradicated by tons of asphalt.

Still worried about that candy wrapper?

Action at a Distance... Ka-Pow!

The ability to induce a remote effect with no visible mediator is a potent meme in American culture.

Wikipedia describes action at a distance in terms of gravitational and electromagnetic forces and quantum mechanics but it's also a conceptual archetype.

It explains our fascination with guns and helicopters and remote controls and magic spells. These all endow us with a sense of power. We can make messes without getting our hands dirty. It's a pleasurable sensation, ever-present in our mythology and our cultural psyche.

Is that thing loaded?

Something for Nothing

A popular meme in our culture is the notion that if one is clever one can get something for nothing. Freebies, says the axiom, go to the clever.

For example, cellular service vendors (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) offer "free" phones when customers commit to multi-year contracts. These contracts lock the customer into high monthly payments and termination penalties. But the phone is free!

Or is it? No one is fooled; they know that the vendor wouldn't be doing this unless it were profitable. So why doesn't the customer simply buy a phone and cheaper service?

The answer is that people prefer the illusion of something for nothing. They enjoy the sensation of being clever, false though they know it to be. So don't spoil the fun!

War is Not the Answer

My cherished friend Joe, an engineer and manager at Hewlett Packard, recently died from cancer. Toward the end, his wife Hudi wrote:

Joe has never liked the phrase "battling cancer" with its implication that if you fought hard enough you could win, and that if you succumbed it was a failure. He preferred to talk about living with cancer or facing cancer. Ever the engineer, he has seen his path through the disease as a process. He has dealt with each stage with extraordinary strength, determination, intelligence and resilience. And now, I hope he will deal with this last phase with peace. He was expecting this phase to begin, and had no fear of it.

Indeed, he was an inspiration to all who knew him. I learned from him both in life and in his passing. One of the many profound insights he shared is on the subject of death: war is not a useful metaphor.

These pictures are of airports (Miami, Bangkok). Airports are our cathedrals now, cavernous and awe-inspiring. But what do we worship there?