Tuesday, 30 May 2017

When Language Gets Hijacked

In New Zealand at the moment there is a big ecological push to flush out and exterminate the country’s “predators”. I put the word in quotes because, by dictionary definition, a predator is “an animal that hunts, kills, and eats other animals.” Animals like lions, tigers, wolves, hawks, and owls might spring to mind. Implied in the word is a connotation of “dangerous” and “bad”.

Brushtail Possum, photo from Wikipedia
In New Zealand, however, the word “predator” is coming to mean any animal not native to New Zealand, regardless of its diet, which is assumed to be harmful to New Zealand’s indigenous flora and fauna. This, oddly enough (if you honour the traditional definition) includes brushtail possums, rats, deer, feral pigs, and magpies, as well as stoats and feral cats (which are “true” predators), but NOT native hawks or owls or tuatara or insect-eating fantails and weta (large indigenous insects themselves) which are also “true” predators.

It bothers me when a word is hijacked by politicians or marketers and given a new meaning that is simply accepted by the public, usually opening up opportunities for somebody to make a whole bunch of money. In this case, it’s the chemical poison industry, who get to drop tonnes of 1080 baits over New Zealand’s forests every year, and manufacture and lay brodificoum and cyanide ground poisons. That’s great for not only production but also employment—people’s jobs are on the line. The latest political splash, which has gained some notoriety around the world, is a plan to make New Zealand “predator-free” by 2050—and they’re not talking about lions and tigers. Or tuatara or wetas or native hawks.

I have some pretty strong thoughts on the roles of various animals in natural ecosystems, but this post is about language use, so I’ll leave that issue for another piece of writing. Instead, I’d like to bring up another personal language “peeve”.

Photo from CBS article linked in text.
The word “antidepressant” first appeared in 1959 in the New York Times to describe two new drugs, imipramine and ipronazid, which appeared to ‘reverse psychic states’. This appealing word took the world by storm, and was soon on the lips—and in the advertising--of every pharmaceutical marketer wanting to market new drugs. Clinical trials, almost all run by the drug companies who make the drugs, all showed limited benefit over placebo (a fake “med”) of their “antidepressants” and often a bevy of side effects to boot, but when a drug was marketed as an “antidepressant”, both patients and doctors were eager to buy and try. After all, nobody wants to be depressed, right? Today we know that antidepressant drugs can make depression worse in the long term, and can even cause suicidality, but the power of the word, and the idea that something can easily fix depression is so powerful that few people can even grasp the idea that an “antidepressant” may not be—in dictionary terms—an anti-depressant at all.

These examples aside, I accept and appreciate that our language is an evolving entity, and that dictionary definitions are not created by word police but by us, ourselves, with our language usage. I’m not bothered by new words that creep into everyday conversations and, eventually, make it into dictionaries like lol, app, and google as a verb. Nor am I usually bothered by words whose meanings change, often dramatically; think gay, ace, cool, and hot for starters, though I still snag sometimes at mother.

On this theme of our changing language, and to end this post on a positive and more generic note, this link goes to an interesting list of 20 common words (i.e., nice, awful, fizzle, wench) whose meanings have significantly changed over time, and an excellent TED talk on language change from Ann Curzan. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Gut Bacteria Influences Health and Well-Being

Gut bacteria photo from the article on the link between
anxiety and gut bacteria (linked left)
There were several posts that came up on my Facebook feed this morning about gut health and various illnesses. One linked bipolar “disease” to an unusual and deficient gut biome while another one explored the link between the gut biome and Alzheimer’s. Neither of these diseases were common 100 years ago. And here's a slightly older story on the link between gut bacteria and anxiety.

So what is happening in our digestive tract now that wasn’t happening in the past?  It’s fairly obvious that we have a lot of processed foods in our diets that our grandparents and great grandparents never ate. Food additives—artificial colours, artificial flavours, flavour enhancers, preservatives, mouth-feel/texture ingredients—are often identified by numbers on food packets, or disguised as something else. “Flavour” sounds less alarming than “artificial flavour,” “brown rice syrup” sounds healthier than “sugar”, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein sounds fairly benign but it contains MSG (monosodium glutamate), a “nasty”.  Those are fairly obvious things.

Then we have packaging. Everything these days seems to come in plastic bags or wraps: snacks, breakfast cereals, pet foods, fresh meat, fresh vegetables. We have plastic-lined cans, plastic lined boxes, plastic milk containers and plastic juice containers. Buying a cooked chicken at the supermarket deli? Bet it comes wrapped in hot plastic. Yes, we even cook in plastic, from microwaving in plastic containers to frying meat in Teflon pans and baking muffins in pink silicone “tins”. Besides being a disaster for our landfills and rubbish dumps, there is growing concern about the impact of the leaching of harmful molecules from plastic food wraps, containers and cookware into our food and bodies. The jury is still out, but long-term accumulation of toxins from plastic in the body seems likely.

Meanwhile our commercial food crops are grown with a bevy of toxic chemicals: weed-killers and pest-killers are scattered and sprayed over crops, sometimes shortly before harvest. For example, some farmers actively spray their wheat and potato crops with glyphosate (RoundUp) before harvest to make harvesting easier and more profitable. They call it “desiccation;” which sounds less ominous than poisoning--the power of vocabulary. The plants take up these poisons systemically and retain it, and it doesn’t wash off. Even the chemical fertilizers used to encourage growth in tired soils are toxic.

Think meat and dairy products are better options? That all depends upon what the animals have been eating. GMO corn and soy are common ingredients in animal feed (probably including what you’re feeding your dog or cat), and even “grass fed” beef and sheep are sometimes grazed on sprayed pastures. Food animals are also treated with antibiotics, chemical wormers and drenches, and some may be given growth hormones.

Our water, too, is contaminated with chemicals. Chlorine (which kills bacteria, including the bacteria in your gut) and fluoride are the two most talked about chemical additives in our tap water. Chlorine kills not only the bad bacteria, like e coli, that may be lurking in our water, but also the good bacteria in our digestive tracts.

And the pills we take to fix our various ailments also alter our gut bacteria. Antibiotics are notorious, of course (killing bacteria is their job), but most drugs alter the gut biome.

Our whole economic system is geared around making a profit, not around enhancing human health, and the chemical companies reign. While most foods and products we buy are not toxic in a single-serving sense, years of accumulated toxic load on our systems may affect all of our organs, and even single servings may have temporary or longer-term effects on gut flora and fauna. And we need all those eager little gut bacteria to stay healthy and digest our food. 

There are, of course, a few things you can do right now to make a difference. Buy organic food products as much as you can or grown your own food. Avoid “junk” food and highly processed foods. Do your own cooking. Don’t cook in plastic, and limit the amount of plastic used in contact with foodstuffs. Use filtered water if you can. Don't take drugs you don’t really need. Avoid, or at least limit, your own chemical contamination.

Ultimately, though, the system needs to change if we want to live in a world where making healthy, natural choices isn’t dependent upon personal awareness, education, and financial situation. Awareness is growing. And that’s a good start.