Banned Phrases

The following phrases are hereby Not Allowed.

    "The Law of Unintended Consequences."

      The thing about this phrase is that people often cite it, but never define it. There's a good reason for that: any definition of it would be shorter than its title! Let's try: "Unintended Consequences happen." Wait, I think we can do better: "Shit happens." Yup, there it is: when you want to say "shit happens", or when you want to make the Nelson "ha-ha" laugh, you can instead invoke The Law Of and suddenly you sound erudite.


      I'm pretty sure this used to be called "gloating." But by ismifying it, you can pretend it's a school of thought.

Stop using these phrases. If you hear someone using them, smack them. Thank you for your cooperation.

Tags: ,

43 Responses:

  1. drjon says:

    If Shit did not happen, you would Explode - Mao Tsu, The Little Book of Fnord, as quoted in the Apocrypha Discordia...

  2. xunker says:

    You're the first I've ever seen use them.. so..

    <blink> * SMACK * </blink>

  3. You're lucky that you've passed into an informational garden ecology where you spend a lot less time than most of us convincing people that they're clearly insane. When someone is proposing a Five Year Plan of stupefying scope and complexity I'm not above using any dirty rhetorical trick to derail them. Pretending that there's a Law of Unintended Consequences that exists on roughly the same plane as the Law of Universal Gravitation is a useful way of bullying people into not dragging everyone around them down to a firey doom.

    • strspn says:

      I fully agree with this rationale. However, doesn't "Murphy's Law" have the same or greater weight in most circumstances?

      • greyface says:

        Especially in the original(ish) formulation of:
        If there's 2 ways of doing things, and one of them results in disaster, that is the way it will be done.

  4. cacepi says:
    tri·umph·al·ism   Audio pronunciation of "triumphalism" ( P )
    Pronunciation Key (tr-mf-lzm) n.

    The attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, especially a religion
    or political theory, is superior to all others.

    I think this is better known as "my dad can beat up your dad".

    • xomox says:

      Ergo, it's perfectly cromulent.

    • wfaulk says:

      It's not a dictionary's job to define language. It exists to help people figure out what the fuck someone else is talking about. Therefore, it includes all sorts of bullshit that should never be used. Why do you think they have those "obsolete" and "nonstandard" markings? You'll also find that some dictionaries are more conciliatory than others.

  5. neversremedy says:

    Who uses those phrases?

    • relaxing says:

      the kind of people who argue on USENET.

    • relaxing says:

      also, political bloggers.

    • jwz says:

      People who write for newspapers. And people who blog about those people.

      • neversremedy says:

        Journalists? Journalists?!? Oh, why the hell am I so surprised? These days, most journalists (American) can't use apostrophes and commas properly, or discern the differences between "their," "there," and "they're."

      • nonbinary says:

        And now, in the latest Sunday edition of my local paper, I skimmed an article by a journalist talking about bloggers who play journalists...for which I'm sure any of them mentioned will have long since blogged about it in their online journal.

        According to this article blogs and online journals are becoming quite a thing these days...sometimes even scooping traditional newspapers. Gee, thanks for the "news."

  6. korgmeister says:

    If looking for a somewhat more accurate definition of "The Law of Unintended Consequences" I tend to prefer Le Chatelier's Principle:
    "Complex systems tend to oppose their own proper function."

    Needless to say, this can be applied to both politics and UNIX with equal usefulness.

  7. substitute says:

    One of the best part of Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" is his dissection of catch-phrase journalism. This is a pretty good example of it.

    If one doesn't use these catch phrases and speaks in something close to plain English, one is accused of being argumentative and mean, oddly.

  8. gremlingirl says:

    Law of Unintended Consequences can most briefly be summated as follows:


  9. dougo says:

    You should post them to <lj user="stopsayingthat" />.

  10. valentwine says:

    Jamie, you should submit these to my good friend Rick Bradley's banned vocabulary: (in the sidebar).

    On a related note, you might be interested in his back of the envelope estimation of journalism bias:

    Which leads right into our 1st Annual Monty Widenius Ass-Kicking Tour:

  11. merovingian says:

    What is the law?
    No Unintended Consequences!
    Who makes the rules?
    Some ismifying gloaters.

  12. superbacana says:

    Googling the phrase "Law of Unintended Consequences" gives two pages with definitions:

    From The Concise Encyclopeida of Economics:

    The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people-and especially of government-always have effects that are unanticipated or "unintended." Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it.

    From Wikipedia:

    The Law of unintended consequences holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. In other words, each cause has more than one effect including unforeseen effects. The idea was originated by sociologist Robert K. Merton.

    The latter link leads to this paper:

    Robert K. Merton. The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action American Sociological Review. Volume 1, Issue 6. Dec. 1936, 894-904.

    • jwz says:

      That's just the kind of bullshit I was talking about. All of those say "shit happens" but with far more words than needed. It's a tautology. It says nothing except, possibly, "I think I'm smart and you should too."

      • strspn says:

        Perhaps they merely couldn't get funding when they proposed to study "how to stop bad shit from happening."

        Thesaurus abuse: don't let it happen to you.

      • superbacana says:

        I can't argue with that.

        I haven't seen it used much, but the obvious usage is as a rhetorical device that can defeat any proposal. As in: "___________ can't work because of the LOIC."

      • irilyth says:

        I've always interpreted "shit happens" as implying that random bad things will sometimes just happen, for no good reason. This seems different from unintended consequences... If your boss fires you because he doesn't like the way you comb your hair, that's "shit happens"; if minimum wage laws cause your employer to go out of business and you lose your job, that's unintended consequences.

        Of course, people might still use the phrase when they really mean "shit happens"; but it does mean something different when used correctly, I think.

        • nothings says:

          Yeah, I'm on the same page as you (and replying here so as to merge replies). The two are definitely not the same, as you can't substitute the law of unintended consequences here:

          "Dude, why didn't you pick me up at the airport?"
          "Well, my car had a flat."
          "Shit happens."

          "Dude, why didn't you pick me up at the airport?"
          "I met this hot chick and I was busy screwing her."
          "Shit happens."

          You could try substituting murphy's law for the law of unintended consequences, but even that isn't quite right, because murphy's law allows for external shit happening: whatever can go wrong will go wrong. If you've got all the internal consequences settled, soemthing external will go wrong. If you've fixed all the bugs in your rocket and the next launch is definitely going to work, Congress will cut your program. The law of unintended consequences would be if somehow because your next launch would have finally worked, Congress cut your program. It's sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy, only in reverse.

          That said, while it does seem to me to have a meaningful and usefully distinct meaning, I've never used it and don't plan on starting now.

  13. ydna says:

    I watched about five minute of the local TV news the other day. It was the first time I'd seen any in over a year. They were covering the "explosion" of Mount Saint Helens. The news anchor was commenting over the live video being fed from a helicopter hovering near the volcano. She said, "...the picture is starting to get darker as we get nearer to that time at the end of the day..." I exploded, "It's DUSK you stupid bitch!," and turned the TV off.

    I'll check back next year sometime to see if things have improved any.

  14. The Law of Unintended Consequences is more than "shit happens." It's more like "you're going to make shit happen." Optionally append, "you stupid shit."

  15. greyface says:

    People invoke the Law of unintended consequences not as a stand in for "shit happens"... but as a way of saying "I told you so" when they, in fact, never did tell them so. (they probably had other reasons for opposing whatever course of action brought on the unintended consequence)

    It gives a strong implication that the person who failed to account for the law, failed to think through the long term results of their action.

    It could stand in for "Shit happens," in the unlikely world that the person invoking the law isn't (at least) partially gratified that something bad is happening.

    That said, I think it's perfectly fair to invoke the "recent buzzword, and now grating and worthless" clause of the contract that mass media should have with the world.

  16. cyeh says:

    "Best of breed."


  17. Today in an email I wrote "I just wanted to same-page us."

    Is that bad?

  18. panda_boner says:

    I nominate sports metaphors, as a reminder to some of the IT pricks that enjoy this journal.