TIME Workplace & Careers

3 Little Words You Should Never Say

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PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou—Getty Images/PhotoAlto

Easy to blurt out, hard to take back

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This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article below was originally published on The Muse.

You’re in a meeting, just wrapping up your status update, and things are going well. The group seems reassured that you’re on top of things. Then, just as you’re about to close your laptop and head for the door, your boss’ peer asks, “How are projections looking for Q2?” Your boss nods in your direction and suddenly, all eyes in the room are back on you.

Blurting out a panicked “I don’t know!” may seem like the path of least resistance in an uncomfortable moment—but if you want to be taken seriously as an emerging leader, you should ditch that phrase and learn what experienced leaders say when they don’t know the answer.

Saying “I Don’t Know” Costs You Credibility and Influence

I once spoke with a woman who was truly an expert in her field—the only engineer on her software team with a PhD. But despite her technical chops, people kept sidestepping her and going to her boss with questions that she could have answered.

It turns out that the tech-savvy PhD was in a job that required her to represent the department in senior-level executive meetings where it had been deemed acceptable—even encouraged—to interrupt whoever had the floor and fire a rapid stream of tough questions at him or her. No matter how meticulously the engineer prepared for the meeting (and firing squad), she would inevitably fumble, lose her composure, and say, “I don’t know. I’ll ask my boss.”

Just like that, she had inadvertently trained people to go to her boss with their tough technical questions. It turns out that Dr. Phil was right when he said, “We teach people how to treat us”—and that this is especially true when it comes to establishing credibility and influence at work. Every time you say “I don’t know,” you teach people not to come to you next time.

“I Don’t Know” is Not an Answer—or an Option!

Once, while at a professional crossroads, digital marketing executive Dr. Patricia Fletcher reached out to a mentor for help. When her mentor, Jeanne Sullivan, a seasoned investor and corporate board member, asked what Fletcher would do in a hypothetical situation, Fletcher began her response with “I don’t know….”

Sullivan cut her short, reminding her, “‘I don’t know’ is not an answer. The correct answer is, ‘I don’t have enough information to answer your question.’”

Fletcher now looks back on this as one of the best pieces of advice she’s ever received. “When it comes to business, there’s no such answer as ‘I don’t know,’” she says.

Prepare a More Powerful Response

In the business world, a person who speaks with confidence is likely to be perceived to be competent.

Writing for ForbesWoman, negotiation and leadership expert Selena Rezvani suggests, “Rather than turning to ‘I don’t know’ as a default, prepare yourself with some more powerful responses.”

Wondering what your options are? Here are four powerful options I recommend you commit to memory:

  1. “I don’t have enough information to answer your question.” —Jeanne Sullivan, founding partner of Starvest Partners (and Dr. Patricia Fletcher’s mentor)
  2. “Good question. I’ll find out.” —Chris Turkovich, principal program manager
  3. “Based on what we know today, my thoughts are…” —Selena Rezvani, leadership author, speaker, and consultant
  4. “I don’t have the data at hand, but I’ll get it to you later today.” —Senior software engineer

The PhD software engineer from the story above practiced these responses while standing in front of a mirror until she was able to stand her ground when fielding a tough question. Now, when pressed for an answer, she looks the inquisitor in the eye and responds in a way that builds her leadership presence and authority. And now, colleagues and execs alike know to come to her—first, before her boss—with technical questions.

Communicating with confidence is part of a leader’s job. To join the rank of truly exceptional leaders, upgrade your communication toolkit and eliminate your “I don’t knows” in favor of more powerful responses.

TIME review

Steven Pinker’s Ultimate Writing Guide

Class is in session—and it's one you'll enjoy
Class is in session—and it's one you'll enjoy

You wouldn't ordinarily take literary advice from a neuroscientist—but Pinker's new book will make you think otherwise

Sometime during middle school, I showed my father something I’d written for a class assignment. About halfway through reading, he stopped, pointed and said “that’s grammatically incorrect. You wrote ‘I will now describe.’ The correct wording is ‘I shall describe.'” The word “will”, he told me, implies defiance and determination. But if your sentence starts with the pronouns he, she, we, you or they, the rule is reversed.

It sounded nutty, to say nothing of pointlessly precise, but that was evidently what he’d learned in grade school back in the 1930’s. As far as he was concerned, that made it an eternal truth. For decades now, I’ve just assumed that the rule had gone out of style—but on reading Steven Pinker’s charming and erudite new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, I’ve learned that there never was such a rule, in the sense of something that was universally agreed on by language experts.

If anyone should know, it’s Pinker. Not only is he an extraordinarily stylish and prolific writer himself—he’s written on the history of violence, why words don’t mean what they mean, the mystery of consciousness, the role of genes in shaping character, how the mind works and more—but he’s also got the intellectual chops to back up what he says, what with his being a psycholinguist and neuroscientist at Harvard and all.

With that backing him up, it’s no surprise that while The Sense of Style is very much a practical guide to clear and compelling writing, it’s also far more. Pinker dives deep into the neuroscience of language to explain why some writing is clear, some murky and some sublime.

Style has all the fun stuff that makes usage guides so popular. For example, he lambastes the language scolds who wag their fingers over such evils as split infinitives—absurdly, Pinker says, because the rule against them is based on the fact that infinitives such as “to go” are single, unsplittable words in Latin and other languages that arose from it. Our two-word infinitives should not be governed by the old one-word rule—meaning that Captain Kirk was just fine, when he said “to boldly go.” Pinker pooh-poohs the idea that words must always stick to their original meaning: “decimate” means “to cut by ten percent” in Latin; now people use it to mean “more or less destroy,” and that’s fine with him.

Sometimes Pinker works a little too hard at this debunking campaign. He informs us that while “ain’t” is generally incorrect, it’s fine when used in expressions like as “it ain’t over till it’s over.” But since nobody has thought otherwise since the Herbert Hoover administration, it’s a point that hardly needs to be made.

Pinker then steps back from talking about excessively fussy rules to talk about something he calls “classic style”—a concept he attributes to the scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas. The basic rule here is “write clearly,” and Pinker’s advice on how to do so is pretty standard, albeit written with great clarity.

Among his suggestions: read your prose out loud to yourself in order to pick up on awkwardnesses that might not be evident when you’re reading silently; avoid jargon; keep your sentences short; jettison superfluous and unnecessary words—like, say, using both “superfluous” and “unnecessary” when just one will do. In one of the many tables of good versus bad that appear in the book he shows how phrases such as “for the purpose of” or “in view of the fact that” can be replaced simply by “to” or “since” with no loss of meaning.

Finally, Pinker plunges into what really sets this book apart: the neuroscientific underpinnings of what makes some writing good and some bad, based on how our brains process language. Classic style or not, this bit takes a fair amount of work to get through. Pinker acknowledges that many very good writers get by purely on intuition, but, he says:

Just below the surface of these inchoate intuitions, I believe, is a tacit awareness that the writer’s goal is to encode a web of ideas into a string of words using a tree of phrases. Aspiring wordsmiths would do well to cultivate this awareness.”

Well, maybe. But the chapter that covers these ideas is filled with sentence diagrams and technical language that runs the risk of making aspiring wordsmiths run screaming from the room. Here’s a passage in which Pinker tries to move the awareness-cultivation process along, talking about a set of words he calls “determiners.”

A determiner answers the question “Which one?” or “How Many?” Here [i.e., in a passage about a play by Sophocles] the determiner role is filled by what is traditionally called a possessive noun (though it is really a noun marked for genitive case, as I will explain).

There’s lots more of this sort of thing, which Pinker thinks “can take the fear and boredom out of grammar.” I’m not entirely sure about that. For experienced writers, however, it’s pretty fascinating stuff—the unconscious mechanics that underlie the instincts they’ve developed through experience.

In the end, Pinker’s formula for good writing is pretty basic: write clearly, try to follow the rules most of the time—but only the when they make sense. It’s neither rocket science nor brain surgery. But the wit and insight and clarity he brings to that simple formula is what makes this book such a gem.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME advice

The Secret to Learning a Foreign Language as an Adult

Learn foreign languages
Warchi—Getty Images

CEO David Bailey describes how he taught himself French in only 17 days

Answer by David Bailey, CEO of Spotnight, on Quora.

I’ve learned several foreign languages as an adult. I was able to learn French to conversation fluency in 17 days using the following techniques. Note that I had previously learned Spanish to fluency so this was not my first foreign language.

In summer of 2005 I stayed with a French friend in a tiny village in the Beaujolais region of France. No one in the village spoke English and, since my friend knew I had an ambitious learning goal, she refused to speak to me in English as well.

I set up a routine where I did the same things every day.

In the mornings, I woke up and wrote out longhand the regular and irregular verb tables for 1.5-2 hours. I managed to get through an entire pad of paper in two weeks. I still believe that writing things out by hand is the best way to memorize things.

While I wrote, I would listen to Michel Thomas’ language learning mp3s. On the CDs you listen as he teaches French to other English speakers. It’s really helpful to hear other students make mistakes that you can learn from, just like a regular classroom environment. In two weeks I listened to the foundation, advanced and language building courses twice.

I would run for 45-60 minutes in the early afternoon in the French countryside listening to catchy French music. Music is a great way to learn the intonation of a language and train your facial muscles as you sing along.

I had lunch with my friend and her French friends everyday. As they refused to slow down when speaking to me in French, it was learn or starve!

In the afternoon, if I wasn’t playing darts or Boules with my French friends, I was reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in French. Reading the children’s books you read as a child is a great hack to learning new languages. Firstly, the language used is simple and secondly, knowing the story helps you to guess the meaning of new words and avoid using a dictionary. Surprisingly children’s books are more entertaining in a foreign language.

I spent at least an hour writing basic essays about myself which I had my French friend check for errors. When you meet new people you inevitably get asked the same things: “Where are you from?”, “What do you do?”, “Do you like France?”. By learning ready-made answers, you get to practice what you learned and build up your confidence.

Another good tip is to learn the filler words. These are the words and phrases people say then all the time between sentences (alors, en fait, etc.) but have no real meaning; allowing you to buy time in a conversation and increase your confidence.

After 17 days I left the small town and went to Paris. I met a girl in a coffee shop and we started talking. After a few minutes, she asked how long I had lived in France. When I told her I had been learning French for 17 days, she swore that I had lived in France for at least a year.

Hopefully there are some useful tips you can use in your learning. Let me know and bonne chance!

This question originally appeared on Quora: What are the best ways to learn a language as an adult?

TIME Developmental Disorders

How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

Researchers say playing a series of sounds when infants are four months old could speed up the way babies process language and make them linguistic stars when they’re older. How babies respond to the sounds can also predict which infants will have trouble with language as well

The first few months of a baby’s life come with a flurry of challenges on a still-developing brain. Sights, sounds, smells and touches as well as other emotional experiences flood in, waiting to be processed and filed away as the foundation for everything from language to emotions and how to socialize with others. What happens if things are not finding their right place in the brain during these critical months? Some research suggests it results in developmental delays later on—and that’s just what neuroscientist April Benasich and her colleagues from Rutgers University found in a new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Previous studies done by both Benasich and others show that the brains of children who learn to speak later or who develop reading disorders like dyslexia showed differences in detecting small differences in speech, such as the difference between da and ba, when they were infants. Other research has come to similar conclusions.

Genetic factors certainly play a role, but up to 10% of the babies Benasich has studied had no family history of developmental problems, yet still showed language trouble when they started talking. That’s why she turned to studying the brain maps of healthy babies before they learned to speak. These routes show how infants detect and respond to sounds in their environment—from words spoken to them to the humming of a dishwasher. In these early months, their brains are primed to sort out this cacophony of auditory stimuli and start making more refined distinctions between them. Doing so requires distinguishing between tiny differences, both in the sounds themselves as well as in frequencies. “Babies do this naturally; this is their job, since they want to be able to pick sounds out quickly and figure out whether they need to pay attention to them,” says Benasich.

For the babies in this study, she adorned them with skull caps studded with electronic sensors that would draw a map of their EEGs as they were presented with different, non-linguistic tones. Some of the babies were played sounds that changed ever so slightly, such as in their tone or frequency, and whenever there was a change, a small video in the corner of a screen they were looking at popped up. The babies naturally turned to watch the video, so the scientists used these eye turns as a signal that the babies had heard and recognized the transition in sounds, and were expecting to see the video. Another group of babies were played the same sounds but without the video training, and a control group didn’t hear the sounds at all.

MORE: Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try So Hard

It wasn’t the sounds themselves that were important, but the changes in them that were key to priming the babies’ brains. Those who were trained to pay attention to the changes in the sounds, for example, showed more robust mapping of language sounds later on when they started to babble; by 18 months, these infants showed brain mapping patterns similar to those in two year olds. They were faster at discriminating different sounds, and quicker to pay attention to even tiny differences in inflection or frequency compared to babies who weren’t given the sounds. The babies who only listened to the sounds without the training fell somewhere between these two groups when it came to their language mapping networks.

Benasich says that the training lays the foundation in babies’ brains to become more efficient in processing language sounds, including very tiny variations among them. Their brains are setting up different neural routes for each sound, like a well-organized airport with separate runways designated for northbound and southbound flights. Other babies were less adept at this, essentially routing every sound through the same neural network, akin to sending every plane off the same runway, leading to delays as some have to bank and redirect in the opposite direction. In similar ways, says Benasich, in language, this cruder processing of sounds could result in delays in reading or speaking or language acquisition, and toddlers end up having to “manually” process the sounds in a more tedious and less automatic process. “Instead of automatically discriminating sounds without pausing, they have to stop and think and what that sound might be, and that leads them to hesitate a little,” she says. “That small hesitation makes a huge difference in how well they learn and process language.”

The training, she says, was minimal – the babies’ parents brought them in for six to eight minute sessions once a week for about six weeks. Yet she was “surprised by how robust the effects are for the babies.”

The study involved healthy babies who did not have risk factors for language disorders, so the training only helped them to enhance their later language learning. But the team is currently studying a group of babies at higher risk of having language deficits, either because of genetic risk factors or by having siblings affected by such disorders. If these babies show different brain patterns compared to those not at risk, then it’s possible that EEG patterns in response to sounds could predict which infants are at risk of developing language problems even before they start to talk.

Benasich is also working on developing her test into a parent-friendly toy that parents can buy and use with their babies; if their babies are developing normally, then the training can only accelerate and enhance their language skills later on, while for those who are struggling, the training could help them to avoid learning disabilities when they start school. It’s not possible to screen every baby, but if parents and doctors are able to take advantage of such a tool, then she hopes that more language-based disorders might be avoided. “Babies naturally do this, but for those who are having trouble, we are guiding them to pay more attention to things that are important in their environment, such as language-based sounds,“ she says. “We think we could make a huge difference in the number of kids who end up with learning problems.”

TIME technology

In Praise of Emoticons :-)

The smiley face is all grown up — but just as vital as ever

There are certain things so ubiquitous—things we all have used and enjoyed like we share equal ownership over them—that it is hard to imagine any single mortal person creating them. Things like this:

: – )

But the emoticon, that display of feeling crafted from punctuation, does have a birth story, and it unfolded exactly 32 years ago today, on Sept. 19, 1982.

Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon, noticed that conversations were going awry on electronic message boards the staff was using to communicate in the early 1980s. Jokes were being lost, tones were being misconstrued and unnecessary tirades were eclipsing the intended discussions. So Fahlman, then in his early 30s, made a simple, legendary suggestion: if you’re being humorous or ironic, label your comment with a smiley face made of a colon, dash and parenthesis.

Soon emoticons were spreading to other universities, then seeping into emails and eventually text messages across the world, filling the giant hole left by all the visual cues present only in face-to-face communication. The tone of one’s voice, the furrowing of one’s brow, the erect middle finger. “One of the main problems with text communication is that it’s just different from how we’ve talked to each other for most of the existence of language,” says computational linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, who wrote his thesis on emoticons at Stanford. “There they are, these words, sort of flat. We’re depleted, we’re dry in terms of the cues we get to use to signal exactly what we mean.”

And that is where emoticons have come in so terribly handy. The twist is that 32 years into this wild ride, emoticons are giving way to more colorful, more elaborate Japanese-born cousins: emoji. Those little images—invented in the ’90s by telecommunications planner Shigetaka Kurita—are much more versatile than punctuation will ever be. They’re easier to use and more efficient; three clicks can give you all this instead of just this: [ : - ( ]. They can be even be animated like this Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 12.17.47 PM.

From Facebook's Finch collection of emoji, which the company calls "stickers."
From Facebook’s Finch collection of emoji, which the company calls “stickers.”

But on this momentous occasion of the emoticon entering its 33rd year, let us take a moment to appreciate the qualities it has that emoji do not. For one, developers and designers are flooding our operating systems with their own versions of emoji (like Facebook’s) — which, unlike uniform colons and dashes, are all different. Though most people are familiar with the emoji Apple designed (like those in the above paragraph), there is no standard set. So some only work on this browser or that phone and often what we get, instead of that important, clear visual cue of a person’s meaning, is this unhelpful thing signifying that an icon should be there, but is not: Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 11.41.37 AM.

In an attempt to one up each other, emoji developers have also started making symbols that can actually confuse situations as much as clarify them. Take this adorable yet semantically unhelpful emoji from social app Line:

You know, for those times when you’re expressing something that really won’t come across quite right without a half-peeled banana with a milk mustache.

It is, of course, lovely that texters have the option to add this to their epistle, but there is a simplicity it lacks that an old-fashioned, primitive emoticon like ; ) does not.

Emoji are indisputably the cool kids to the emoticon’s awkward yet lovable science teacher. But they’re not dead yet! Until there is a standardized set of emoji—or software capable of translating all images onto all electronic devices as senders intended them—people will be relying on these 32-year-old standbys. So happy birthday to you, you little symbolic gems, and thank you for all your fine work so far = ).

TIME language

When Did ‘Shylock’ Become a Slur?

Vice President Biden has apologized for using the term

On Tuesday, Vice President Joseph Biden referred to those who make bad loans to members of the military, to take advantage of them while they’re overseas, as “Shylocks.” He was speaking on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit that helps fund legal aid.

The word “shylock,” which has been used to refer to loan sharks, is an eponym from a Jewish character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Jewish Americans have publicly challenged the portrayal as an insult to Jews for more than 50 years, according to a review of TIME’s archive, even as it remained a fixture of the modern lexicon. Today, “shylock” is considered an antisemitic slur and, after being called out by the Anti-Defamation League, Biden apologized for his “poor choice of words.”

But the vice president’s apology has confused some — perhaps because the term was, not too long ago, considered by many to be appropriate for public usage.

A quick survey of TIME’s archives reveals 119 articles that use the word. Many of those are articles about The Merchant of Venice and Philip Roth’s book Operation Shylock — but the last time it was used casually, without reference to the character, was in a 1977 story about the mafia: “A new soldier starts at the bottom, breaking in as a senior thug’s driver, bodyguard or shylock debt collector.”

Go back further and the references begin to increase in volume. Until the 1950s, it was not uncommon to see a reference to “Uncle Shylock” when the U.S. government was judged to be stingy.

But those usages, despite their commonness, weren’t necessarily inoffensive.

In 1962, Joseph Papp, who started New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park, chose The Merchant of Venice as the first play for the new theater. “The New York Board of Rabbis loudly protested,” as TIME reported during the controversy. “In the part of Shylock, said the rabbis, Shakespeare had perpetrated ‘a distortion and defamation of our people and our faith.” Through WCBS-TV, the entire city would have a chance to see the performance, and that was what bothered the rabbis most. ‘The television audience will be a mass audience,’ they argued. ‘It will include impressionable young people and teenagers, and many of its adults would not pass muster on the score of intellectual maturity.’ Rabbis across the city took up the theme.”

Concern about Shylock wasn’t new in the ’60s either. Writing in the journal Engage, slang lexicographer Jonothan Green has noted the word was listed in a 1950s collection of “schoolyard wit and wisdom” as a taunt for Jews. (Green also notes that the word doesn’t start to appear to mean a loan shark until the 19th century.)

The question of whether Shakespeare and the play The Merchant of Venice are antisemitic — or if Shakespeare was merely recording the views of his time, and perhaps even encouraging others to think twice about those views — continues to be debated. But few, if any, would be flattered to be compared to a greedy usurer best remembered for demanding “a pound of flesh” as loan repayment. In the play, Shylock and his Jewish identity are closely linked; the character perpetuates a stereotype via a syllogism that could be seen to imply that Shylock is Jewish and Shylock is bad and therefore Jews are bad. That logical leap has been possible to make throughout the four centuries since the play was written.

In short, “shylock” has long been considered offensive — but that didn’t stop its casual use in conversation and print at least into the 1970s.

TIME Media

Genius, Mensch, Sad Clown: Dissecting What Robin Williams Really Meant to People

Robin Williams
Peter Hapak for TIME

The words used to describe the icon have a rich history that makes them even more appropriate than people realize

The world has lost a lot this week: a comedic genius, a real mensch, a sad clown. Remembrances of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who was found dead on Monday, have repeatedly summed him up with the same few words.

Some readers were learning the terms that cycled and recycled through the news. After Steve Martin tweeted his reaction to Williams’ death—“I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.”—mensch became the fifth most searched word on Google.

But even those who didn’t have to thumb through their dictionaries may be surprised to learn the history behind these suddenly ubiquitous words, much of which makes them even more appropriate for the sad task they’ve had this week.

“Robin Williams, an Improvisational Genius, Forever Present in the Moment”

— New York Times headline on August 11, 2014

genius (n.)

In the Middle Ages, a genius was a supernatural being. In classic Latin, the word referred to the male spirit living in the head of a family, which was then passed into everyone else through him. And in the Middle Ages, genius came to describe an attendant spirit that was assigned to each person at birth, and sometimes two mutually opposed spirits (you know, the good genius and the evil genius). This same root gave rise to the word genie, like the lamp-dwelling one Williams’ voiced in Aladdin, who could be good or evil depending on who his master was.

Because a genius was to accompany people through life, fulfilling their fortunes and then escorting them off the mortal coil, the word came to refer to the essential character of someone and their natural aptitudes for things. And so writers using it now to refer to Williams’ singular talents are also, likely unknowingly, connoting a battle of the selves that geniuses have represented throughout history.

I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.

— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) August 11, 2014

mensch (n.)

This Yiddish word is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a person of integrity who is morally just. But there is more to the word’s aura than that. Yiddish scholars could argue endlessly about the precise nuances, but mensch is often used to describe someone who is not only admirable but who should be emulated, a willing mentor who thinks beyond themselves in a way that shows strong character, not passivity.

Writer H.L. Mencken described a mensch this way: “an upright, honorable, decent person” and “someone of consequence.” Others argue that a mensch must be approachable and that a true mensch would never call himself a mensch, probably because he’s too busy putting the community above himself.

Like many Yiddish words, this one has been adopted into the American vernacular in a way that is evolving and richly imprecise. But most qualities assigned to the word, however Steve Martin meant it, have been reflected in other words people have recently used to describe what Williams’ was like as a family member and neighbor. The local comedy club in Mill Valley, Calif., where Williams could often be found backstage encouraging young comedians, canceled their weekly comedy night for the first time in 10 years this Tuesday, out of respect for their mensch.

The word’s origins are related to those of mannish. No, not the mannish we use now to refer to hairy or masculine folk, but a long obsolete usage. In Old English, being “mannish” meant one was of mankind, exhibiting humanity itself and human nature. And being mannish is at the heart of comedy, the quality of unspoken truths Williams’ indirectly told his audiences about, and made them laugh about, through his jokes and voices. You know, it’s funny because it’s true.

Robin Williams the ‘sad clown’

— Toronto Sun headline on August 11, 2014

(sad) clown (n.)

The word clown originally meant something along the lines of “lump.” From there, the word came to describe a clumsy boor or a lout—often some crass hayseed-type with no class or culture. Circa Shakespearean times, clowns evolved as fools who played up their ignorance or cultivated oddity for laughs, either in a court or on a stage. They were servants and sidekicks who might humiliate themselves, and hide their true selves, for others’ pleasure. And they could use that distance to mock more powerful figures by transforming themselves into something grotesque—and funny.

In Europe’s Romantic days, the notion of a sad clown—the type of character whose costume romantically masks inner turmoil—became popular. Part of this comes from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte theater that relied on certain stock characters that cropped up again and again. One of them was a bumpkin that actors began playing as a melancholy clown. Literary types were drawn to the sad clown as a character who was a creative master unappreciated by the public (no doubt because some of them felt that way themselves).

Certainly Robin Williams was appreciated, though perhaps not for the whole artist he might have been, after deviating from the Flubber era into more serious, darker roles. But he came to the American public as a clown. His first big part, as an alien learning human behavior on Mork & Mindy, was a creature weird and unrefined, a figure on the margins of humanity that knew life on this planet in a different way than the rest of us, in all its cruel, lovely sense and nonsense.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

TIME language

Congress and Its Do-Nothing Code Words

Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation
Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation Alex Wong; Getty Images

Conditional phrasing is the red flag of uselessness. Congress no longer talks about the things it "will" do; only the things it "would" or "could do"

Time was, reading news stories about NASA was a thrilling experience. What helped make it that way was something most people didn’t even consider: the verbs. Even before the hardware had been built and the people had been launched, the space agency knew where it was going. And so the press releases and the reporters’ stories were filled with promises that “the Gemini program will allow astronauts to walk in space,” and “the Apollo program will achieve the first lunar landing before 1970.” In early 1969, NASA even issued a “Neil Armstrong to Be First Man on Moon” press release.

As history notes, the Gemini and Apollo programs did just as they promised and Neil Armstrong was indeed the first man on the moon, and the only reason NASA didn’t get called on its hubris was because — as baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, the subject of TIME’s April 15, 1935 cover, famously put it — it ain’t bragging if you can do it.

But then the Apollo program ended, the manned space program started to drift, and slowly the declaratives gave way to the conditionals. So reports trickled out about a new spaceplane NASA was building that would take off and land like a jet, and the new Mars program the agency was planning that could have humans on the Red Planet by 2019, and the return-to-the-moon Constellation program that should be ready to go by 2020. But the space plane never flew and the Mars and Constellation missions were scrapped and, in its defense, NASA could at least say, well, we never lied to you.

Now, as NASA finally, slowly rebounds, an entire branch of government — Congress — has descended to the land of the conditionals. Increasingly, lawmaking in Washington has been reduced to little more than a pantomime, with both parties retreating to their bicameral would-sheds, cranking out a lot of doomed, never-gonna-happen bills — base-pleasing legislation that could or would do a lot of things, but never actually will.

Google the phrase “the bill would,” along with the words “House” and “Senate” and you get 59.8 million hits. That’s an admittedly imprecise way to go about things, not least because it gathers in a lot of similarly partisan behavior in state legislatures — though all that may indicate is that the celebrated laboratories of democracy have begin working with the same inert chemicals the federal legislature has.

Still, there are more than enough examples of Congress taking the lead—introducing a river of proposed legislation that would defund Obamacare (50 times), or reform the immigration system, or turn Medicare into a voucher program, or raise taxes on the 1%, or lower taxes on the 1%, or require background checks for gun purchases, or streamline the tax code, or raise the minimum wage, but that never actually will do any of those things. On Friday, the GOP majority in the House moved toward approving a bill that would at last address the unfolding border crisis, but only at the cost of deporting the 500,000 so-called Dreamers, people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The move faces a certain death in the Senate or White House veto but allows the legislators to go home to campaign, claiming that at least they tried something. President Obama — who has proposed plenty of his own dead-on-arrival legislation — dismissed the bill as “the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they already know is going nowhere.”

Showpiece legislation designed more to make a point than anything else is a part of every parliamentary body, and in the U.S. it has always been a bipartisan form of mischief — even if in the 112th and current 113th Congresses, the Republicans have been guiltier than the Dems. Both parties learned a powerful lesson in the uses of legislative vaporware 20 years ago, with the Republicans’ sweep of the House and Senate in the 1994 midterms.

The GOP surfed to power that year thanks in part to New Gingrich’s and Dick Armey’s celebrated Contract With America, an ingenious campaign gimmick that promised House action within 100 days of a Republican takeover on 10 bills dear to party stalwarts, including a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and capital-gains tax cuts. Every one of the proposals did come to a vote and cleared the House. And virtually none of them went anywhere — nor were they expected to, given a balky Senate and a Democratic president with a veto pen. But the strategy worked — at least insofar as shifting the balance of power in Washington — and that did not go unnoticed by strategists in either party.

Nobody at this point expects a return to the dew-kissed days of Ronnie and Tip and Lyndon and Everett, when politicians would maul one another for show, then quietly worked out deals for real. Even then, members of both parties would often take care to describe their bills humbly, hedging with the conditional would. But the will was usually implicit, because passing legislation was what they’d been sent to Washington to do.

That, however, no longer seems possible. The members of the current Congress are increasingly content to produce only hollow bills that benefit no one but themselves—and why not? It’s easy, it costs nothing, and it gets them re-elected. Voters — eventually — will catch wise and punish them for that behavior. History, surely, will pillory them for it — and on that last point, there is nothing conditional at all.

TIME language

Russia’s Spin Job of the MH17 Crash Brings Back Soviet Memories

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia, July 16, 2014. Alexei Nikolskyi—Ria Novosti/Reuters

Moscow's response to the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is a return to the ham-handed ways of the Soviet days — and that portends bad things

A Russian disaster is almost never followed by Russian candor. This is true of most countries, but most countries are at least adept at explaining themselves — even if disingenuously — as the George W. Bush Administration showed with its flood-the-airwaves spin campaign after the weapons of mass destruction that were the casus belli of the Iraq War turned out not to exist. Not so Russia, and — as TIME’s Simon Shuster reports — its response to the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the murder of the 298 people on board is one more illustration of that fact. Even after what are purported to be recordings between a pro-Russian rebel and a Russian military officer discussing the destruction of the airliner surfaced, Moscow remained in defiant denial — even flipping the script to blame Ukraine. “This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took a lower road, going for the ad hominem: “With regard to the claims raised by Kiev, that it was almost us who did it,” he said to a Russian state-run news channel, “in fact I haven’t heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months.” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described this response with elegant understatement, labeling it “deeply, deeply unsatisfactory.” Soviet Russia was even more ham-handed in its defense of itself. A few days after the April 26, 1986, explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Soviet Ambassador Eugene Pozdnyakov appeared with Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline. When Koppel asked him why Russia initially covered up the accident, coming clean only when radiation readings in Europe revealed the truth, Pozdnyakov blamed the calendar. “It happened on Saturday,” he said, “and the governments of proper countries are usually on holidays on weekends.” Koppel responded with frank incredulity, scolding the diplomat with a simple, “Oh, come on!” In the current crisis, Moscow could at least call on experience, since — depressingly, remarkably — it’s not even the first time Russia has been implicated in shooting down a civilian passenger plane. That first time occurred on Sept. 1, 1983, when a military interceptor jet blew Korean Airlines Flight 007 out of the sky, killing 269 people, after the plane accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace. Moscow hedged and fudged and blamed the Korean pilot for being where he wasn’t supposed to be, and finally decided to fake transparency, releasing what were said to be air to ground transcripts between the interceptor plane and the base, intending to show, if nothing else, that the pilot seemed confused about what was happening. At one point during the attack, he was said to have exclaimed “yolki palki,” which TIME described then as “an exceedingly mild oath,” and indeed it is. Its literal translation is “sticks of the fir tree.” And it’s English equivalent? “Fiddlesticks.” The fighter pilot has not been born who speaks that way when engaging the enemy. Wordplay amounts to little for the 298 people killed in the new attack — or for the 298 grieving families. But it amounts to a lot as the rest of the world tries to reckon with Russia’s new aggression and its return to its old, opaque ways. The attack on the plane was over quickly; the aftermath promises to play out slowly and uncertainly.

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