The United States Is Growing – And Shrinking

At the dawn of the 21st century the United States had about 300 million people, and could add 50 million by 2030. Still, some parts of the US will lose population as more people move to the city.

The Urban Institute’s map of regional population shifts illustrates this. Although Maine won’t see any population growth overall, the population of southern Maine is growing. Northern Maine’s population, however, is shrinking. It’s all about where the jobs are (and are not).

Take a look at the Urban Institute’s map. The rust belt from Upstate New York to Ohio, and down the Appalachians into Kentucky stand out as an area in decline. The Dakotas down to central Texas and New Mexico also stand out.

Texas is poised for a population boom, but it will be concentrated in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio triangle (Austin is in the middle). The coastal South and the West Coast, as well as most major urban areas in the Heartland, are also expected to grow significantly.

It’s not just the United States. The greater Tokyo area has almost 36 million people, but the countryside is emptying out. Some rural Japanese schools are running out of students.

In the mid-20th century, researcher John B. Calhoun made several attempts to create a mouse utopia. He constructed an enclosed area capable of housing 5,000 mice. There was plenty of food, no predators, and the original 8 mice (half male, half female) were disease free. Calhoun thought the mouse population would rise rapidly, then level off, and the mice would have a groovin’ good time with nothing to worry about.

But it went horribly wrong. Every.single.time. (He did this several dozen times.) The problem is that the mice would gather in clusters, while other areas were abandoned. Eventually the overcrowding and competition for resources led to violence among the males. The females stopped bearing young, and some killed their pups.

And then there were the “beautiful ones.” These non-aggressive males withdrew to the abandoned areas to live as hermits. They spent much of their time grooming, hence the nickname.

At first Calhoun wondered if the population decline would level off, enabling mouse society to stabalize as violence decreased. But no. Extinction was the fate of every mouse “utopia.”

What does this mean for humans? Generalizing from one species to another is tricky at best, especially considering that humans are much more intelligent (though Douglas Adams might disagree).

This doesn’t mean the apocalypse.

Still, there are striking parallels. There’s plenty of food on this planet to feed everyone, we no longer have natural predators, and while disease hasn’t been entirely conquered we’ve made enormous strides in medical science.

In addition to crowding into cities and the decline of the countryside, there’s the plummeting birthrates in Europe and Japan to below replacement level, which is expected to result in a population decrease.

But there’s more. In Japan there’s a group of young men called the “grass eaters” or “herbivore men” (草食男子, soshokukei danshi) who live as urban hermits, do not seek sex with women (or men), and who are rumored to spend more than the average man on grooming products. It’s hard to say how numerous they are, but there are enough of them to catch the West’s attention. Will the “beautiful ones” phenomenon come to Europe or America?

On the other hand, there’s contrary evidence. Crime, already low in Japan, has been decreasing. But if Calhoun’s mouse experiment applied equally to humans then crime in Japan should be increasing.

And that’s cause for hope. If humans follow some of the patterns from Calhoun’s experiment but not others then there’s an opportunity for humans to continue thriving.


Random: What’s In a Word?

Millennials catch a lot of flack for using the word random incorrectly.  For example, “Like, this totally random dude came up to me and, like, said ‘Whatever!'” defines random as “unpredictable,” “lacking uniformity,” or “occurring without definite aim”  Or more technically, “a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.”

Millennials often use random to mean unexpected, which is similar to unpredictable. I once had someone say to me, “Hey, I have a random question,” and then he proceeded to ask about something specific that had been on his mind. Maybe he assumed I wouldn’t expect the question, but he certainly had given it some forethought and had a definite aim.

Young people also talk about random hook-ups, though I assume they’re choosing the person they want to sleep with rather than pulling names from a hat. On the other hand, they might not have gone to the party with a preset plan of sleeping with that specific person, which is why the event seemed random to them.

Other times random means miscellaneous. Paul Hiebert lists a few of his pet peeves, including a New York Magazine article “Six Random Michael Jackson Pop-Culture Moments.” Hiebert lists several other meanings of random, including inconsequential, unlikely, strange, silly, and capricious.

But in defense of Millennials, I should point out that word meanings often change.  Mad actually means crazy, but Americans use it to mean angry. The British could take us to task for that, but mad as angry is so entrenched in American English, and consequently international pop culture, that it’s not a battle worth fighting.

Imagine this exchange:

“That guy is random.”

“Yeah, he came out of nowhere.”

“No, I mean he’s running.”


Random entered the English language twice. The Old English word rinnan meant to flow or to run, and was derived from the Old High German rennen, meaning to run.

Though the Frankish invaders of Gaul mostly dropped their old German dialect in favor of the local Latin-based dialect that would become French, some old Frankish words nonetheless survived. The Frankish word rant meant running, and the Norman French conquest of England in 1066 brought a derivative with it – randon, meaning “rush, disorder, force, impetuosity.”

Random evolved from running fast; to rushing in a disordered or impetuous way; to no specific aim; to today’s selection process in which all outcomes have equal probability, which overlaps with popular uses connoting capricious, unexpected, and inconsequential.

In a way, then, the following dialogue is not so incoherent:

“Dude, like, the etymology of random is, like, random.”

“Word, bro.”

Messin’ With Texas

I’ve never been to Texas, though I hope to visit someday. You can’t help but hear a lot about it. Being the second largest state, Texas has a huge impact on everything from presidential elections to textbooks.

And Texas is growing fast. The US Census claims the overall Texas population will grow by 6.7 million people over the next 15 years to 33.3 million, but the state of Texas believes it could be more.

And it’s not just a booming population – it’s a shifting population. Today, 80% of Texans identify as white, though this drops to 44% for non-Hispanic whites. Those who identify as Hispanic or Latino are 38% of Texas’s population.

But Looming Boom: Texas Through 2030 by Texas A&M University shows that in just a few years Hispanics will overtake non-Hispanic whites (table 2). By 2030 half of all Texans might be Hispanic. And unlike the northeast, Texas will remain a younger state.

Because younger and Hispanic voters are more likely to vote Democratic, liberals have hopes of Turning Texas Blue.

This is overly optimistic, however, because Anglos are more likely than Hispanics to vote. And Hispanics are a younger demographic, meaning less of the population is of voting age. Besides, Hispanics are a more diverse group than some might realize – they’re more conservative than Anglo Democrats.

That is, Anglo Texans are solidly Republican which makes Democratic inroads difficult. But the GOP may find it easier to appeal to conservative Hispanics – though this will require softening the Republican attitude toward immigration.

We won’t see any change in Texan voting patterns in the 2016 presidential election. And while there probably won’t be much of a shift in 2020’s election, wonks looking at the fine print may notice a glitch in the Matrix.

Even in 2024 most Texans will likely vote for a Republican president because Anglo voter turnout will probably still exceed Hispanic voter turnout.

But the 2028 election should be interesting. I’m guessing that by then Texas will be purple, meaning it will be a swing state like Florida and Ohio are now. This means Republicans can still carry Texas in 2028, but they’ll have to work harder.

Beyond 2028, Texas will probably remain purple, but it will never be Massachusetts or California.

Zombie: What’s In a Word?

I remember watching Night of the Living Dead in college 20 years ago, and thinking it was one of the funniest movies I`d ever seen. But it wasn`t meant to be a comedy. AMC`s tv series The Walking Dead is more sophisticated, and the special effects are far superior.

American`s fascination this Haitian voodoo legend goes way back. The word zombie if of West African origin. It`s first mention in English comes from Robert Southey`s 1819 history of Brazil, but it was W.B. Seabrook`s 1929 novel The Magic Island that popularized zombies in the United States.

According to one anthropology site, zombies started out as really annoying people that the community wanted to get rid of. A voodoo priest would administer a substance containing just enough tetrodoxin to make the person appear dead. The priest would then resurrect the person, who perhaps due to the toxic drugs couldn`t remember a thing and appeared to be mindless.

There`s no scientific evidence that any of this is true.

Two contenders for the word of origin are zumbi, a Kikongo word meaning fetish, and the Kimbundu snake god nZambi, which was associated with the spirits of dead people. Kimbundu is a Bantu language. In Kikongo, another Bantu language, Nzambi a Mpungu is the a fatherly sky god who created the world, and Christian missionaries in the 1500s to what is now the Congo used this name to represent God.

Possibly related to zombie is the Spanish word sombra, which is derived from the Latin umbra, both referring to a ghost. There’s likely no connection between sombra and zumbi, but the similar sounds and the fact that both refer to dead people could have created a loose association.

According to DNews, the original goal was to release a person from their mindless state. But if that doesn`t work I guess you could just smash their head in.

Slut: What’s In a Word?

It’s not nice to call a woman a slut. But maybe it’s not about sex as much as we think. At least not originally.

The origin of slut is uncertain. We don’t know where it’s been, though it’s gotten around. But there are some guesses. The English Oxford Dictionary encourages us to compare slut with the German word schlutt (which today is confined to a dialect).

Slut originally meant “a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance.” A 16th century English translation of Stefano Guazzo’s Civil Conversation contains this gem: “I haue noted often those dames which are so curious in their attire, to be verie sluttes in their houses.”

I guess that could have a double meaning, but I don’t think Guazzo meant it that way.

Its medieval use wasn’t strictly gendered even if it did usually refer to women. Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Yeoman’s Tale, has the character ask, “Why is thy lord so sluttish, I thee pray.”

Slovenliness is often associated with poverty, and as recently as the 1800s slut could be used without sexual connotations. In The Saint’s Tragedy Charles Kingsley refers to “almshouses for sluts whose husbands died.”

Associated with sloppiness is cleaning up the mess, as in this diary entry from 1663: “Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better.”

How did slut as a sloppy woman migrate to a poor woman, and finally to a sexually indiscriminate woman?

Dunno. Slovenliness and poverty have long been attributed to low morals (poverty being systemic is a very recent idea). And perhaps prostitution, being a fate more common among poor women, had something to do with it.

Of course, the progression might not have been linear as words can have multiple meanings depending on context. But by the 20th century, slut had an exclusively sexual meaning.

Yet, even today the socio-economic aspect lingers. Elizabeth A. Armstrong‘s research at the University of Michigan found that slut shaming is often a competitive strategy to keep women with a lower socio-economic status away from high status men.

Will a Bachelor Tax Create More Babies?

At first I thought it was Onion style satire. Japanese bachelors should pay a handsome man tax to encourage them to marry.

Japanese men are losing interest in matrimony, often because of the enormous financial demands of marriage and family. But fewer births could mean Japan’s population will be a fifth smaller by mid-century.

The birthrate in the United States is falling too. Millennials are having fewer babies because they’re not financially ready due the Great Recession and its aftershocks. But despite fewer births than deaths, the US population is still projected to grow because of immigration. Japan is disinterested in immigration, however.

Yet, a bachelor tax would fail for several reasons:

  • People respond best to natural incentives. Social engineering usually has unintended consequences.
  • Japanese men will still remain unmarried unless the tax is much more expensive than the cost of raising a family.
  • Even if the tax incentivizes Japanese men to marry, this doesn’t mean Japanese women will become more marriage minded.
  • Even if more people do marry, this doesn’t mean they’ll have more babies (at least not enough to stop the population decline).

And there’s the rub. Ultimately it’s women, not men, who have babies. So a bachelor tax fails to directly target the correct group.

Man & Wife: Word Origin & Sexism

Why is a happy couple is declared man and wife? Why not man and woman, or wife and husband?

One view is that upon marriage a man retains his personhood while a woman becomes a possession. Similarly, the word mankind implies that only males are people, thus excluding half the population.

Language is fascinating. My interest in the history of the English language began in high school when my English teacher had us listen to a recording of Beowulf‘s prologue in the original Old English:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.

It’s hard to believe that this is actually English. But English’s Germanic origins were dramatically altered after the Norman French invasion of England in 1066.  Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, six centuries after Beowulf:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

English has always been a rapidly changing language, and this remains the case today. People sometimes ask when Americans lost their English accents. But reality is that Americans never had a modern British accent. English sounded very different in the early 1600s when the first settlers landed at Jamestown.

But back to the original question of sexism when declaring a couple man and wife.

Originally the phrase simply meant man and woman. The Old English word for an adult female, single or married, was wif (pronounced weef). An adult male was wer (pronounced ware). But wer eventually disappeared (the only form in Modern English is found in werewolf).

And there was a gender neutral word that meant person: mann. Being gender neutral, a female could also be called a mann. The Old English compound word wifmann meant female person, and eventually became woman. But the definition of wif, now wife, narrowed to exclude unmarried women. Wer fell out of use, however, and man became the masculine when referring to a specific person while retaining its gender neutral status when referring to people in general, such mankind.

By the late 20th century man and mankind no longer felt gender neutral and thus were seen as excluding women. And so a new gender neutral word was needed: humankind.

Because the word wife no longer means any woman, married or unmarried, many couples now choose to be pronounced husband and wife. The Old English word husbonda meant head of the household, and usually referred to a married man, though any male head of household could have claimed the name. But the term was always male.

Finally, the word female comes from the Norman French femelle. The Norman French word masle was Anglicized as male to more closely resemble the word female.