Brief Thoughts on Familiar Phrases
Are we too flippant with our words?

Two men exchanging familiar phrases

There are two sides to every issue. 

The phrase would be more accurate if stated thus: “There are at least two sides to every issue and at least one other way to frame the question.” Each issue that is commonly understood in dualistic terms (pro-life/pro-choice, gun rights/gun control, supply-side/demand-side economics, capitalism/socialism) has been narrowed and defined in order to organize the discussion—if what our culture does even qualifies as such—into a simple binary that’s more amenable to planning television programs, directing advertising campaigns, and controlling thought. Accepting the dualistic definitions as presented effectively cedes the critical thinking and reasoning to powers unknown, leaving people to do little more than huddle into opposing groups that take invective for debate.

 How else might the question be framed? What are the underlying assumptions and values? Who benefits from sorting people into insoluble struggles that never examine the questions any further than making tally after tally of yea and nay? For issues on which the two sides have remained entrenched for years, has anything changed or been solved? If not, are these the only two sides conceivable or even the most useful for arriving at an answer? 

 Could it be that the division was orchestrated to create an intractable problem? Maintaining a crisis state keeps the many commentators, specialists, news-entertainment producers, politically involved religious leaders, and others in business. If they solved the problem, their professions would no longer have an organizing purpose. Would not the logical aim be to prolong the problems as much as possible to maintain a predictable market?

 Always question the proposed dualistic divisions. There may be no simple answer; indeed, a deep investigation may reveal more uncertainty and paradox rather than support for an existing platform or party.

 Google it.

There are subtle, but crucial, differences among “do an internet search”, “look it up on Google”, and “Google it.” The first phrase is hardly heard anymore, but is the best of the three for its lack of assigning an activity allegiance to a corporation. The second phrase elides the possibility of other, non-Google ways of finding information online. Although this phrasing does not rule out the speaker conceiving of other search methods, it does participate in what author Nicholas Carr describes as a consolidation of authority by a few internet companies (most notably Google and Wikipedia).

A disturbing linguistic development transforms the second phrase’s noun “Google” into the verb “to Google” of the third phrase. The distinction may seem minor, but it reveals how choice among differing search methods—and even that of understanding oneself as an entity independent of Google—have been eliminated. Google’s colonization of the language turns the company into a linguistically and conceptually necessary feature of the world because the words to describe it as otherwise have vanished.

First, consider that Bing, Ecosia, DuckDuckGo, and others are all viable search engines. The language need not contract into a single possibility when there are about a half-dozen choices available. This is particularly crucial because search engines curate information and therefore control the range of possible conclusions that users can draw.

 If there is no way to imagine an action or a thought without invoking a corporation, how dependent on the company are we? If the name and proprietary technologies are protected as intellectual property and the company’s language displaces real language, even saying the phrase “Google it” on television now requires a pay out to Google themselves. How likely is innovation if a company is synonymous with a concept? Whatever the company does would, by the fact of the colonized language, be correct and acceptable because there is no other way to imagine the world.

 The noun is a tool, but the verb is thought itself.

 Killing time.

There’s no need to conceptualize passing time as a kind of murder. Our culture has enough of a fixation on violence without turning even the most passive moments into a figurative taking of life.

There is, however, a more sinister sentiment at work in this phrase. Life is made of time; killing time is killing oneself. In common usage, “killing time” entails something like window-shopping or poking around Facebook. If doing nothing is the best thing to do at that moment, then do nothing; reducing the number of sensory stimulations is a good thing. Inventing tasks to fill the awareness and stave off the possibility of silence accomplishes nothing and disrespects the self. In the case of the examples provided, it also cedes autonomy to corporations, which profit from attention, without receiving anything in return.

Don’t kill time. Live time. Be time.

 Are you religious?

In the United States, a reply in the affirmative without further qualification means that the interviewee is a Christian. Why is Christianity assumed to be the default religion? Why not ask if someone is Christian if that is what you mean? Why does it matter? The question’s unstated hope is that the inquirer and the responder be of the same religion, which is of course the one true religion.

 Consider flipping the question. Respond by asking why he wants to know. Inquire which religion is meant, and if the implication is that certain answers will result in judgement. Ask if the inquirer wants to know about adherence to meaningless dogma or living an ethical life.

What do you do?

The literal meaning of the question ought to elicit responses that include everything a person does in life; this would include eating and sleeping, caring for children, reading, having sex, telling jokes, and so on. This is, however, not the question’s intent. The real question obscured by the apparent simplicity is this: “How much money do you make? It’s important to me that I make my judgement of you based on this single facet of your life.”

 If someone wants to understand and empathize with his fellow man, it is far better to ask what he likes to do, what is on his mind, what he did that day, what he is reading or anything that evinces interest in the man, as opposed to his ability to serve as a means to bolster one’s own social standing.

Illustration by Josh Gates

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