We really need to think before we speak. We don't mean us personally, though of course our big fat mouths have gotten us fired from more jobs than most people knew existed. We mean that if you stop to think about it, there are all sorts of bizarre pitfalls hiding in our language. Like how ...
We're constantly bombarded with enough depressing news to turn anyone into a raging cynic, but according to the words we use, we're a much more positive bunch than you'd think. Doctors Peter Sheridan Dodds and Chris Danforth collected and analyzed 100,000 words from ten different languages in pretty much every available media source: books, movies, news articles, even your racist cousin's tweets. They found that we use positive words more frequently, all across the board. There are even more overall positive words in every language than there are negative ones.
This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. People tend to slowly slide away from you when you start talking about your ugly divorce on the bus, and they'll stop hanging out with you completely if it's all you ever talk about.
Men are "waiters" while women are "waitresses," women are "stewardesses" while men are "too good for that job," etc. These days, society uses gender-neutral terms like "server" or "flight attendant," but we haven't left all that ugly business in the past. While "waitress" is a neutral-value term, the gendered nouns that have stuck around are much more loaded.
Consider the terms "mistress" and "master." They're essentially the same word, but outside of slavery and low-quality bondage clubs, "master" has mostly positive connotations, while "mistress" mainly conjures up images of infidelity. If you call a man a "wizard," it's likely the best thing that will happen to him all year, but "witch" is an ugly, mean woman. You can also look at a word like "madam," which is sort of the female version of "sir." Both are formal ways to address someone. However, "madam" also has the distinction of referring to someone who runs a brothel. Men who oversee the activities of sex workers (to describe that line of work as nicely as possible) aren't called "sirs." We gave them a whole new word, plus the veneration of several generations of rappers. It's just not fair.
Consider the word "tall" itself. Sure, it can simply mean something high up, or refer to the person who can reach that thing, but there are also idioms like "walk tall," or "stand tall," meaning to be proud or confident. We "look up to" people we admire, and say they're "head and shoulders above" the rest.
On the flip side, you're "short on cash," "caught short" of something, or "come up short" of a desired goal. We "look down on" people who order Hawaiian pizzas in a group setting. To "short" someone is to cheat them out of something.
It's weird, because the Old English origin of the word "tall" didn't have anything to do with height. It originally meant "swift," or "prompt," and eventually also came to mean "good-looking," "bold," and "good at fighting." Every one of those descriptors matches Arya Stark, so the word is clearly a misnomer, but we mashed height in there with the rest because we're toddlers who want big people to be nice to us. That might be why taller people are, on average, more likely to have better-paying jobs, regardless of skill. Plus, they're handy to have around for high shelves and kites stuck in trees.
Back when children were first invented thousands of years ago, we already knew they were the worst. If somebody is acting stupid, petty, or just plain ridiculous, they're being "childish." Shitty behavior is often "immature." You need to "quit acting like a baby." It's all a very subtle form of dehumanization.
Donald Trump sucks -- that's an objective fact -- but turn to the media to learn exactly how he sucks today, and you'll find words like "child," "childish," or "kid" used over and over again. It probably wasn't even meant to be a burn when child psychologists argued that calling Trump a child is an insult to children. According to them, the behaviors that draw these comparisons -- an inability to sit still, lack of empathy, and constant need of self-approval -- are things most real children don't really have problems with. That's merely the president of United States of America being himself.
In most colleges and high schools across America, the girls' sporting team has a different name than their male counterpart. Sometimes this entails lazily appending "Lady" to the name of the boys' team -- the "Lady Bears," or "Lady Pirates," etc. One high school's female team name is the "Lady Missiles," because no object is too esoteric to gender. The University of Delaware won the redundancy award for calling its women's teams the "Lady Hens," though they did finally get with the times all the way back in 2014. As of 2015, 95 colleges within the NCAA still differentiate between their male and female sport teams.
The bizarre practice is even more prevalent in high schools. In Illinois alone, approximately 40 percent of high schools gender their sports teams, and some instances are more troubling than just adding a female designation. One high school calls their boy teams "Pilots," while the girl teams are "Co-Pilots." And this has a real effect on female athletes. According to Amy Cooter, a professor at Vanderbilt University whose name you should please stop snickering at, these conventions can make female athletes feel their "physical appearance has to be in tune with the standards of what we call hegemonic femininity," and that they have to "worry about their attractiveness as well as their athleticism." It also sends the message that the boy sports are the real deal, while girl sports are a nice thing we let them do between typing and boob classes. It seems like a lot of collateral damage all so you can sketch a skirt on a missile.
In 2016, a cow escaped from a slaughterhouse in Queens, raising journalistic concerns beyond which "mad cow" pun to run with. Some of the news headlines referred to the bovine fugitive as "the cow WHO escaped," while others said "the cow THAT escaped," with some stories even switching between the two phrases. It was madness.
If you're not a word nerd, you might not understand the big deal, but newspapers actually began noting in their style guides when an animal should be referred to as a "who" or a "that" -- right alongside the important stuff, like several-page theses on em dashes and Oxford commas. The New York Times style manual suggested using "who" to refer to an animal only when it's "named or personified," but that helped precisely nobody. The cow didn't have a name when it escaped, because it's a lot easier to kill "that brown spotty one" than "Bessy Katsopolis," but it earned a name when an animal sanctuary later adopted it.
Until Freddie earned that name, he was no different from a rock or a pencil, as far as The Times was concerned. Then his Freddification occurred, and every copy editor in the Manhattan area had an emotional breakdown.
Dogs and chimps are more often "who"s, because they're our special babies and uncomfortable close cousins, respectively. Meanwhile, livestock animals tend to be "that"s, because thinking about the rich inner life of your dinner is no fun. In a way, every time you open your mouth to talk about an animal, you're making a judgment about its "humanity." Animal rights activists have begun arguing for a shift toward the universal usage of "who," in an attempt to remind us that even the less YouTube-able animals are still living beings.
Or we could start eating chimps. You know, even the playing field.
Mike Bedard has an English degree from UCLA, and he put it to good use for this article, baby! Follow him on Twitter so he feels even better about himself. Dan Hopper is an editor for Cracked, previously for CollegeHumor and BestWeekEver.tv. He fires off consistent A-minus tweets at @DanHopp.
Some sort of huge word nerd wrote a book on language, and you can read it!
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