The last 30 years have seen a shift toward economic concerns over just about everything else. Simultaneously, we’ve seen an uptick in our awareness of ecology, and of humanity’s often destructive place therein.

As oil-industry-funded climate-change denial has shown, however, the words “economy” and “ecology” are often at odds in the public mind. Doing what it takes to create a cleaner ecology, we’re told, will harm our already fragile economy.

OnWords: Oppression

Oct 6, 2015
Ty Wright/Getty Images

We put a lot of stock in the word “oppression.”

Our nation’s mythology begins with hapless colonists oppressed by a tyrannical king, even though those who led the revolution would have been considered pretty comfortable at the time.

The idea that coming to America will free immigrants from the oppression in places like Syria and South Sudan is bellowed from the mouths of politicians and reflected on the podium of the Statue of Liberty. For most of us, though, oppression is lost in the misty past, as much a source of pride as a collective memory.

OnWords: Intellectual

Sep 23, 2015

As recently as the 1980s, the word “intellectual” had real meaning.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote half a century ago, the United States has always loved to hate intellectuals, a fact that can be seen on prominent display in the current race for president.

But the U.S. has also produced some of the greatest intellectuals of the past two centuries, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to bell hooks.


The way Americans use words like “shooter,” “gunman,” and “killer” show our attitudes about gun use.

Reporters often use the words “shooter” and “gunman” interchangeably. While perhaps meant to convey objectivity, these words also show no culpability or intentionality on the part of the person wielding the gun.

“Shooter” and “gunman” suggest that the gun has a force of will or that gun use is somehow inherent in the person. In either case, the words imply that there's nothing to be done: gunmen gonna gun and shooters gonna shoot.

OnWords: Turnings

Aug 25, 2015

An email exchange with loyal OnWords listener Steven Johnson led to the following meditation on the word “turn.”

A turn in poetry marks a dramatic shift in emotional tone or intellectual consideration; witness the end of a sonnet: a longer landing at the new notion in the last six lines if Petrarchan, and a swift shutting in the last two lines if Elizabethan.

We once marked our emotional shifts with lists of turn-offs and turn-ons, before all such rapid-cycling was declared disease and drugged away.

OnWords: Poetic Language

Aug 11, 2015

Americans love to claim that they don't understand poetry. Its use is relegated to therapy sessions and pop music, often with disastrous artistic results.

Yet we turn to poetry in profound moments, and by looking at how, we can see its impact.

Consider Justice Kennedy's recent writing in a landmark case upholding same-sex marriage.

He wrote: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

Atomische * Tom Giebel, flickr Creative Commons

What distinguishes words that are used as insults from those that have been reclaimed by the aggrieved party?

OnWords: Avoiding Triggers

Jul 14, 2015
lafrijola, flickr Creative Commons

With the advent of the “trigger warning,” the word “trigger” to mean a sudden, uncontrolled emotional response, has burst into the public consciousness.

By using a specifically violent metaphor—a trigger is literally the part of the gun that incites it to fire—we sum up both the suddenness of the experience and its seeming unpredictability.

Triggers are often based on some difficult experience, often a past trauma, and can be the body’s way of reminding us to prepare to fight, freeze, or flee from danger.

OnWords: Protest vs. Riot

Jun 30, 2015

  Recent events in Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri have brought us face to face with how we decide what’s a protest and what’s a riot.

The short memory of mainstream broadcasters gives the impression that protest should never coincide with violence or hard feelings. But the Civil Rights movement wasn’t just MLK and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; it was also Black Power, the Nation of Islam, and riots from Watts to New York City.

Robert Cheaib, flickr Creative Commons

Pundits left, right, and center all seem to think that the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on gay marriage hinges on the definition of marriage.

I think that is a mistake.

A cursory introduction to anthropology reveals that our contemporary idea about marriage is hardly the cultural norm.