One Word: 101

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As a number, 101 is often assigned to the first, most basic course in a college-level subject. Statistics 101. Political Science 101. Composition 101.

For this reason, it also has become, in English, a word – not just a number. It’s now a colloquial way of referring to an idea so basic that it should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about the topic under discussion.

Say you’re a criminal-law attorney. Always find out whether the cops who arrested your client read him his “Miranda rights” That’s “defense strategy 101”.

Say you’re a lab researcher. Be sure to design your experiments in such a way that others can replicate them. That’s “scientific method 101”.

Say you’re haggling over the price of something you want to buy. Let the seller know you’ll walk away from any deal you consider unfair. That’s “negotiation tactics 101”.

(This last one is tough! I long ago gave up trying to bluff my way to a good deal. The only times I get one are when I really am prepared to walk away. My “tells” are too many and too obvious!)

I call “101” in this sense a word because it’s functioning here as an adjective. It has no numerical connotations that I can see. In this context, there isn’t any “102” or “201” as there might be in a real academic course sequence.

Come to think of it, why don’t they call it “Statistics 1” or “PolySci 1” or whatnot? Maybe “101” just sounds sexier?

As a number (and not merely a word), 101 is often used in the titles of books or magazine articles: “101 Ways to Use Baking Soda”; “101 Work-at-Home Businesses”; etc.

I read recently that “101” became popular in such titles because this conveys the idea of extra value. The author didn’t stop at the round number 100, but forged forward with more.

Misleading Marketing 101

There’s thus the idea of “piling it on”. Speaking of which, I recently noticed a marketing misuse of “101” that I must protest:

The grocery chain Kroger carries a store brand called Simple Truth. This began as their line of organic foods. Once they got us all accustomed to equating “Simple Truth” with “organic”, they started applying the label to all kind of inorganic stuff as well. (No fanfare; no announcement of the [bait and] switch.)

Kroger, however, still wants its customers to think Simple Truth products don’t contain bad stuff like pesticides and synthetic preservatives. They’ve therefore plastered their displays with signs proclaiming these products “Free From 101 artificial ingredients and preservatives”.

The slogan (pictured below) has the “Free From artificial blah-blah” in dark green type, arranged in such a way that that’s what the eye naturally follows. The “101” is significantly lighter, and off to the side. If someone notices it, it’s ambiguous: It suggests “this is basic stuff” and “we’re going the extra mile”.


But not to fret! There’s a website where Simple Truth actually lists 101 ingredients (like high-fructose corn syrup) they pledge not to put in our food.

What’s wrong with this? Well, there are literally thousands of toxic chemicals that our government allows in food, in “safe” amounts. Lots of these haven’t been adequately tested. Even if they were, there’d be no way to test all the weird ways these combine in our bodies. To avoid them, you have to eat organic food, which by definition excludes them all.

Every product on every grocery-store shelf is “free” from at least 101 chemical additives. This means nothing, since that very product could still contain thousands of other toxins.

If Simple Truth products didn’t contain artificial ingredients, they’d be boasting about it. Kroger is selling inorganic products while trying to make them seem organic through trick labeling.

Maybe they learned the trick in Deceptive Marketing 101.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

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