Idiom is a Tough Nut to Crack

Phrases such as “that took balls” and “grow a pair” are problematic in today’s world. We’re increasingly aware as a culture that rigid gender roles and enforcing stereotypes hurt everybody, yet everything from courage to fortitude is still represented by testicles.

As has been noted by such eminent scholars as dedhed1841, it’s a terrible and ridiculous metaphor anyway. Sensitive hacky sacks aren’t really exemplars of rugged strength.

Nevertheless, I think that for a replacement word to catch on it should maintain the tradition of using a vulnerable anatomical target to represent toughness. It should just be something that the majority of people actually have.

At first I was enamored of the big toe. It’s completely senseless, and it sounds pretty funny.

“You’re gonna need some size 20s for those big toes, Carl.”

“You wouldn’t dare! Your don’t have the big toes for it!”

The problem with that is that we’ve just swapped sexism for ableism. There actually are a significant number of people who literally do not have toes of any size. Plus there are some whose big toes have been transplanted onto their hands as substitute thumbs, and the whole metaphor just starts getting sidetracked.

Then I realized that there was an obvious feature that most-but-not-quite-all people have.2 It can be made of glass or steel, it’s already in common expressions, and best of all it sounds ridiculous.

“Grow a chin!”

Plus, it’s great for substitutions in other masculine phrases.

“Chin up!”

“They plopped their chins on the table. It was a total chin waving contest.”

I think it could really take off, if I ever had the chin to try it.


1. I mean, probably.
2. I’m really sorry. This is the best I can do without putting any actual effort into it.


Thoughts on the N Word from an H Man

After a long, stupid summer of “Who gets to say the ‘N’ word?” I just have one question: why in the hell would you even want to? It’s not as though it lends the speaker an air of sophistication. As my mother-in-law would say, “You know better words than that.”

Moreover, it’s not as simple as merely avoiding a word — it’s a mindset that is exposed by the context in which the word is placed (despite the protestations that such remarks are taken out of context).

To illustrate:

I once attended a disastrous “over the hill” birthday party for an unmedicated depressive. After the guest of honor locked herself in her bedroom, Wendi and I were left stranded amid a group of people who should damn well have known better than to laugh at her mortality.

We awkwardly ate our pieces of the “funny” cake, all flavor buried beneath the horrible taste of every food coloring ever made (used to produce a jolly black icing to the cake). Then it got worse.

There are some misguided individuals (myself, sadly, included) who combat their own discomfort by inflicting their poor wit on those nearby. Granting that there were only a handful of guests, I still have no idea why we were selected to receive his joke. Maybe he thought that the liberal college students could use some casual racism.

Playing off the unfortunate side-effect of the death cake — which had dyed our teeth and tongues a sickly, dark indigo — he sidled over to us, a twinkle in his eye, and quipped “You look like reverse n_____s!”

Now, here’s my point. The problem isn’t just the word. “You look like reverse African-Americans!” is still a stupid thing to say, and neither phrasing is remotely funny. (Okay, I’ll grant that the revision might be droll in some post-ironic way.) There are much funnier ways of observing that the damn cake was staining us:

  • “Is there something in my teeth?”
  • “I hope this cake sticks to my ribs as much as it does my teeth!”
  • Hold out arms. Glaze eyes. Make zombie sounds.
  • “Well! Off to my photo shoot!”
  • Quietly eat the cake.

What I think this reveals is just how much this person is consumed by racial differences. It’s the very first thing on his mind. See a white guy with black teeth? Hey, that’s the opposite of a black guy with white teeth! And that preoccupation undoubtedly carries into other topics. Crime? Race! Jobs? Race! TV? Race! Cake? Race!

That’s sick.

So — if you’re upset that you don’t get to say that special word — ask yourself what kind of asshole you are that you want to say it.

Reporting Gone Wrong

Trigger Warning: This essay is about rape and rape culture.

When I planned this essay, it was inspired by an unfortunate phrase that I caught in a true crime show on ID. An officer described the rape and murder of a woman as a “rape gone wrong”. Clearly, he was just recycling the phrase “burglary gone wrong”, which is used to indicate that someone was unexpectedly home or awake. I don’t think the officer meant to imply that the presence of the rape victim was unexpected, but it’s that kind of casual language that supports rape culture. The implication is that there’s a right way for a rape to go, which is a damn creepy way of thinking.

That’s what I had planned to write about. Then the verdict came in from the Steubenville, OH rape trial, and news agencies fell over themselves to mourn the “promising futures” of the convicted rapists.

Personally, I believe the only their futures promised was more rape, but I’m a cynic.

The 24-hour news cycle promotes a lot of lazy reporting. Something needs to fill the time, so the latest big event is worked over until every last cliché has been wrung from it and those clichés have in turn been ground into nothingness.

Communities are ‘quiet’, ‘close’, and ‘peaceful’ up until they’re ‘shocked’ and ‘saddened’ by ‘sudden violence’. Everything in a trial is either ’emotional’ or ‘not betraying any emotion’. These are some of the building blocks reporters use when they have nothing to say.

In a rape trial, especially of a minor, the victim is protected, so all the press has to work with is the defendant. So, when pressed for material, they pull out the usual time-filling nonsense and wind up reporting on the wasted potential of rapists. There is no excuse for it; it’s sheer laziness.

It’s reporting gone wrong.

Socially Unconventional

“How are you?”

It’s not supposed to be a difficult question, but it often paralyzes me. Through trial, error, and the trapped looks on people’s faces I’ve learned that the truth is inappropriate.

“Not well, really. I couldn’t sleep last night after hearing what might’ve been a gunshot.”

“Well, my mom tried to kill herself again. I really don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

“My cat went in to have her teeth cleaned and had a heart attack. She’s in an oxygen chamber, and not doing well.”

This is more than most people want. The convention for casual usage seems to be some variation on “well”, “fine”, or “okay”. Anything less positive is met with awkwardness, if not horror.

When I first realized this, I couldn’t bring myself to lie for the sake of convention. After all, it’s not my fault that they asked without actually caring. Right? So I figured I’d acknowledge their usage of a polite convention.

“I acknowledge your greeting,” I’d say.

That worked poorly and earned me more looks ranging from concern to sympathy. With that feedback, I decided to return the greeting without actually responding to the question.

“Hey,” I’d reply. Or, “Hi.”

That worked well for most situations: passing someone in a hall, entering the small kitchen at work, or trying to get a co-worker to tell me why he’s interrupted me. (I lie, just a little. Nothing helps some people get to the point.)

It just doesn’t feel right in our grocery store. We live in a small, semi-rural town. People around here talk to each other. On the street, in line, at restaurants — it’s a little creepy to my paranoid suburban point of view. When someone here asks how you are, they may actually want to know how you are. Maybe not in detail, but they might be interested in a highlight reel.

It’s taken nearly a decade, but now I can respond appropriately to the local cashiers.

“Fine,” I’ll usually say. This is to mean that nothing in my life is abnormally positive or negative at the moment. If everything’s been coming up Atomic Zombie, I’ll hazard a “pretty well”. A broken down car warrants “been worse”, and when it’s worse than that I’ll just leave it at “tired”.

Then I turn it on them. “And yourself?” I’ll ask innocently, hoping to put them through the kind of mental anguish I’ve suffered for years over this social convention.

“That’s good,” they say. “Paper or plastic?”

An Honest Mis-Shake

There’s a restaurant down the street from work where you can get a shake made with two flavors. I was having a rough day, so I decided to have a shake with lunch.

EMPLOYEE: Can I get you something to drink?

ME: Yeah, I’ll have a coffee and hot fudge shake.

EMPLOYEE: Okay. You can get a second flavor with the shake. Did you want double hot fudge or something else?

ME: …

ME: Coffee.



ME (grinning): Yeah, one drink.

It was tasty, but next time I’ll have a shake with the ice cream flavors of coffee and hot fudge.

On Being an Alien

It’s important to remember that aliens are not all from space. Or from Mexico, if you’re an Arizona politico.

The non-specificity of the term led to a co-worker at Business 1st taking offense at his residency status.

“I’m not an alien!” he complained. “I’m from India!”

I explained that Americans were linguistically lazy people, who had shortened the explicit phrase “space alien” to the generic “alien”. He wasn’t satisfied, but I distracted him with the subtleties of “cheesy”.

“So cheesy is bad?” he asked.

“Unless you like cheese,” I explained. “Then it’s good.”

He never asked me about language again.