All of life’s problems—from sneaking beer into a park to fastening your head to an airplane seatback so you can sleep—can be solved by just searching for “life hacks” on the Internet and reaping the collective knowledge of humankind.
Like the law, the English language is constantly changing. Some of these changes are not merely because we have invented new devices and processes that need naming (“smartphone,” “podcasts,” “tweets,” “ear bud,” etc.), but because if enough people use a particular word or construction incorrectly over a long time it can result in it becoming an official (if such a thing exists) part of the English language. It’s as if the ethereal grammar gods just gave up: “Look, we are never going to get these idiots to understand the difference between ‘effect’ and ‘affect,’ so let’s put the word out to all the retired English teachers to forget about it.” Life, apparently, is just too short, even for a grammar god.
A recent example of this phenomenon is the news that the definition of “literally” now encompasses the word “figuratively,” which is its exact opposite (yes, it is now acceptable to say “exact opposite,” even though the term simply means “opposite,” and that’s a true fact). This is because people have been saying things such as “That saxophone solo literally blew my socks off,” “I literally could not hear myself think,” and “His eyes were literally shooting daggers at me.” In each instance, the speaker meant that these events were occurring figuratively, not literally or actually.
So now the Webster, Macmillan, and Cambridge dictionaries have decided that “literally” can also mean “in effect; virtually.”
This demonstrates that our language (perhaps again, like the law) can be changed if there are enough stupid people saying stupid things over a long enough time that the keepers of the faith, our dictionaries, eventually succumb to the crashing wave of (I have got to find another word) stupidity.
The news on the language front isn’t all bad, however. Despite the peculiar vocalizations of a recent U.S. president, it is still not acceptable for us to criticize North Korea for its development of “nucular weapons.” But don’t give up, it may yet come to pass.
Part of the problem could be that we no longer have a vital mass media to set an example of correct English. For example, in the March 6, 2014 edition of a local Colorado metropolitan daily newspaper, a headline heralded news of an Israeli “Navel Raid.” It could be the modern-day equivalent of a 1960s panty raid, but I am not sure how it would work. I figured it was more likely the result of an inattentive copy editor, but when I inquired of a source close to the newspaper, I was advised that copy editing is now being performed “in the cloud,” whatever that means.
Although I may not be considered a student of the language, I probably at least qualify as a passive observer. Thus, it came as a surprise to me when some members of the bar who are younger than I (a subset which includes, literally, everybody) spoke to me of “life hacks,” and suggested I write a Docket article about them. Having been trained as a trial attorney, I am experienced at not letting my facial expression give away the fact that I have no idea what opposing counsel, the judge or the expert witness is saying. I therefore smiled amiably and agreed to undertake the task.
Any empirical research begins with defining the terms of the project. I looked up “life hack” in the dictionary and could not find it. “Hack,” however, has many different meanings. It can mean whacking at a tree or, in war, at another human. It can mean an unlicensed taxi or, as a verb, to sneak one’s way into a computer program. It can mean a writer or journalist who produces dull, unoriginal work (hold your emails, please—I assure you the irony is not lost on me).
Sensing that the more steady and staid printed authorities may not be up on the latest lingo, I consulted the Internet and hit pay dirt.
I learned that a life hack is a quick solution that solves one of life’s problems, but does not necessarily solve it particularly well.
There are even dozens of online videos that demonstrate these quick survival tips.
Some life hacks are more useful than others. One of the more ingenious online life hacks offered advice on what to do if you have the problem of how to dispose of an inconvenient human body. First, you dig a hole in your back yard six-feet long, three-feet wide and eight-feet deep. Then deposit the body at the bottom, but fill the hole in with only six feet of dirt (a crucial step, better bring a ruler). Next, steal a dead animal from a veterinary clinic, a busy highway or your neighbor’s yard. Place the animal in the grave and cover over with two feet of dirt. Tamp it down, level it off, and maybe throw some grass seed on it.
When the CSI agents come by with their corpse-sniffing dogs (if TV is any indication, you will know them because the men will be dressed in hazmat suits, the women in low-cut cocktail dresses and stiletto heels) they will think they have hit the jackpot. Imagine their dismay when they dig down, only to find what you tell them is your beloved deceased pet. As a bonus, they will have to refill the hole themselves and the county will have to pay for re-sodding the area.
Other life hacks seem to be solutions in search of a problem. One very popular life hack, which shows up on many videos, addresses the apparently pernicious conundrum of making perfectly round, mess-free pancakes.
The suggested life hack is to put the pancake batter in a plastic ketchup bottle and then squeeze a perfect circle of batter out of the bottle. It looked great in the videos, so I tried it. Of course, this meant that I first had to obtain a ketchup bottle. So I put the family on a forced-march diet of hamburgers, fries and meatloaf until our home ketchup bottle was empty.
An empty ketchup bottle, however, is never really empty. That last bit of product clings to the inside of the bottle like a lobbyist to a legislator. I tried flushing it out with a couple of splashes of water, but I could still detect a red residue, mocking me from the bottle’s interior. A quick trip to the store to pick up a long bottle brush (and another bottle of ketchup) provided me with the tools needed to achieve my goal. A squirt of dishwashing liquid, a blast of hot water, and a few minutes of probing the bottle with the brush not only reminded me that I have to schedule a colonoscopy but resulted in a clear, ketchup-free container.
I mixed up a batch of pancake batter and was ready to start the experiment. Although the life hack video did not explain this step, I divined that I would need to unscrew the pour spout from the bottle before pouring in the batter. Even so, the relatively small bottle opening under the spout was a tough target to hit with the batter I was pouring from the mixing bowl. I learned this when most of the first pour ran down the sides of the bottle and onto the kitchen counter. It was a mess to clean up, but practice, I figured, makes perfect.
Back to the grocery store to buy a funnel, and I was once again in business. The only problem was that the batter was too thick to flow through the funnel. I could dilute the batter a bit but, as pancake aficionados know, the thickness of the batter is the difference between a perfect pancake and a crappy crepe.
I pondered the problem for a while, and then deduced that a turkey baster was the answer (again, not mentioned on the video). We had one at home, thereby obviating the need for a third trip to store. I used the baster to suck up a bunch of batter from the mixing bowl, and then squirted it into the ketchup bottle. Although the baster outlet was even a bit smaller than that of the funnel, the fact that I could put a blast of air behind the batter made all the difference.
It took me a couple of bastersful to fill the ketchup bottle, and then I was ready to roll. Just as shown on the Internet video, it made perfect pancakes, with no dripping. Not only do I consider the experiment a success, but it was a windfall to discover that the new bottle brush doubled as a device to clean pancake goo out of the turkey baster (not a job for the timid).
My wife pointed out that I could just as easily have used the baster as the batter-delivery device to the griddle and avoided the whole ketchup bottle fiasco (her word). Worse, after all my work to make the task easier, she refused to use either device and simply poured the batter from the bowl as she has always done (I doubt she even knows what a life hack is, much less be able to appreciate one).
Other life hacks demonstrated on the Internet seem to simplify life’s daily nuisances. One asks “When you’re standing in the shower, do you have trouble remembering whether you have already shampooed your hair?” Now, I will admit that, as I have grown older my short-term memory has become less effective. Happily, however, due to genetics shared with my father, shampooing has become less of a priority for me. Anyway, for those plagued with the problem of having hair and not recalling what they have done to it, the life hack advice is to pull a strand of wet hair through your fingers. If it makes a squeaky noise, there is no need to lather, rinse and repeat. This stuff is gold.
So there it is. All of life’s problems—from sneaking beer into a park to fastening your head to an airplane seatback so you can sleep—can be solved by just searching for “life hacks” on the Internet and reaping the collective knowledge of humankind. As for me, I have resolved to keep up with the latest Internet parlance so I will not again get trapped into writing articles like this by fresh-faced newbie lawyers. But perhaps that’s what I get for deigning to speak to attorneys with five-digit registration numbers.
By Craig Eley (registration no. 1071), who probably couldn’t hack it in the real world, so he is now an administrative law judge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.