The saying goes: “the Inuit people have over 50 words for snow.”
English speakers think of snow as a single thing. But since Inuit speakers have over 50 words for it, they are able to better conceptualize the many types of snow. When you really think about snow, it’s obvious there are many types: powdery, slushy, icy, et cetera.
The German language has a famously descriptive vocabulary for people’s mental states. For example, ‘gemeinschaftsgefühl‘ (the feeling of being part of a community) or ‘schadenfreude‘ (taking pleasure at another’s misfortune). Most of these words were coined by German psychologists to help them conceptualize mental states.
Our vocabulary informs our understanding of the world around us, as much as the inverse.
However, vocabulary isn’t always helpful. Specific words can be used to distort or obscure reality. Recently, I’ve been noticing the many ways in which our use of the English language can be unhelpful.
These ones are obvious, once discussed, but easy to forget.
As a society, we’ve drawn a clear linguistic line between the things we consume and their origins.
- Pig = Pork
- Cow = Beef
- Trees = Lumber
- Petroleum = Fuel
- Electricity = Coal, Nuclear, Fossil Gas, Wind, etc
There are practical reasons for this, of course, such as distinguishing between the ‘raw’ and ‘processed’ versions of things. But the result is that people are disconnected from what they are actually consuming. The language of the consumer acts as a grand euphemism to shield people from their consumption’s effect on the world.
I think of the recent lumber price crisis: if “lumber prices are rising” was restated as “tree prices are rising”, it would reframe the issue for many. Of course tree prices are going up – we’re cutting down all the forests!
‘Electricity’ might be the biggest culprit for this. Electricity is a single type of thing to consume, so it makes sense that we have one word for it. But there are so many different sources of electricity, and their impacts on the world are so different, that it is kind of absurd to lump them all together. I found it fascinating how many different sources there were in this breakdown of US electricity generation:
In BC, we’re mostly hydro-based, so to be honest, I don’t think much about my electricity use. But if my bill said “coal electricity” each month, or a split between types, I’d think a little differently about my consumption.
This is a pet peeve of mine: people saying they’ve “made money” or “lost money” investing. Most of the time, they think it’s true, but it’s not.
When you invest in a company, you buy a number of that company’s shares at a set price. For example, let’s say you buy 1,000 shares of a company at $100 per share ($100,000). If the company has 10,000 total shares, then you own 10% of the company.
If the stock price goes from $100 to $150, your shares are now worth $150,000. However, you didn’t make $50,000. You still only have 1,000 shares, and the thing you own is 10% of the company. You have the opportunity to sell those shares for a higher price, but until you do, you have no more money than before.
If the share’s price then goes to $50, your shares are worth $50,000. Depending on your perception, this could be considered “losing $50,000” or “losing $100,000.” But you didn’t lose any money! You still own 1,000 shares, the only thing that’s changed is how much you could possibly sell them for at that moment.
Whenever you do sell your shares in the company, the difference between what you bought it and sold it for is what you made (or lost). Nothing else counts.
This isn’t just a pedantic definition – it’s legal. You only pay tax on the net difference when you sell it (“capital gains”). As long as you hold those shares, you don’t pay taxes on them because the government understands that you haven’t actually made any money.
You have a capital gain or loss when you sell or are considered to have sold capital property.CRA, emphasis my own
I think this definition matters because the misunderstanding of it has contributed to the current insanity in the world of personal investing.
People that previously would’ve just had their money tucked away in a mutual or index fund are now investing in crypto, SPACs, startups, and other high-risk, high-reward investments. There are other reasons for this mindset shift, such as access to free trading apps and Millennials realizing their parents’ path to financial stability doesn’t exist anymore. But one of the biggest reasons is FOMO. People see others ‘making’ large amounts of money when a stock is at its peak and want the same, so they try to find the next wave.
What they’re missing is that virtually no one buys right at the bottom or sells entirely at the top. They may have sold a little too early, or held too long, or they may have dollar-cost averaged in. As a result, the actual cash gains on an investment are a fraction of what the public perceives as the original price and the peak price. For HODLers or illiquid angel investors, the gains may never really exist at all.
We saw this in hyperspeed in the manic rise and fall of Dogecoin over the last month:
Even the NY Times was susceptible to this. They ran a story on Glauber Contesso, “Dogecoin Millionaire”. At the time of the story, his Dogecoin was worth nearly $2 million, and Glaubert made clear he had no intention of selling.
But that was May 8th.
By today (May 23rd, 2021) that price has dropped by more than half. So Glaubert is no longer a millionaire.
In fact, he never was. A month ago, Glaubert had a little bit of money and a whole lot of Doge. Today, he still has a little bit of money and a whole lot of Doge. If he had sold his Dogecoin earlier this month, then he would’ve been a Dogecoin millionaire.
If more people treated money as money and investments as investments, we’d likely have more stable markets and less FOMO in everyone’s group chats.
In the last few years, there has been a public awakening that many of the things we used to do as a society are more harmful than we acknowledged. Through movements like BLM, #MeToo, and just a general reckoning with old behaviour, we’ve worked towards new standards in how we treat people of different races, genders, classes, and sexuality. This has been an incredibly positive change in the world.
We’ve redefined our standards for what’s acceptable. However, we haven’t redefined our language to describe it.
As a child, I felt like I had a pretty clear grasp on what was ‘racist’. If you put someone down or discriminated against them based on their race, that was racist, and the person who did it was a racist. Clean and simple, if a little naïve.
Now, we understand that racism isn’t just about the explicit act of doing something discriminatory or hurtful. If you are supporting systems that oppress other races or perceive racism and allow it to continue, that’s also a form of oppression; a racist act. This expanded definition helps us understand the impact of our actions.
The thing is that in doing so, we’ve taken words like ‘racist’ with historically violent, charged connotations, and given them a more broad application. The result is at times counterproductive.
To take myself as an example, I am willing and eager to reckon with how I’ve done things in the past that contributed to an oppressive society for others, whether through my words, action, or inaction. But if someone said I was racist, sexist, or homophobic? I’d say fuck that, that’s not who I am. I’d immediately be on the defensive. There are many others who would react the same way. Could I work to have a better reaction? Yes. But my connotations with those words are so visceral that it would be very difficult to do so.
To me, this is a language shortcoming. This is no language for this newly perceived, more insidious and prevalent form of racism. Instead, we’re left with a Discourse that at times fixates on debates around charged labels (“I’m not racist!”, “That’s not actually sexist, it’s a joke!”) over actually reflecting on the need for change (“Am I propping up oppressive systems?”).
Of course, I’m aware that this could read like another contribution to the tome of White Fragility. I recognize that the pain of systemic inequality isn’t solved by finding nicer words for ‘racism’. And that even by putting forward the argument, I risk aligning myself with of MLK’s white moderate:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”MLK
But part of contributing to social progress is having hard conversations with people in my life about change. That requires langauge.
When you really think about racism or sexism, it’s obvious there are many types: violent, systemic, passive, et cetera. If I had better language to describe them, those conversations would be much easier. Just like how we’d have better conversations if people understood that lumber is forest and stocks aren’t money.