The Nerd Urban Dictionary

Chris Anderson
11 min readSep 27, 2020

A crowdsourced list of sci/tech/biz words that nerds use to signal that they’re smart

These are perfectly good words in their native sci/tech/biz context, but risk being pretentious when used u̶t̶i̶l̶i̶z̶e̶d̶ in day-to-day conversation

Note: Many of these terms are more precise than their common-use matches. That’s okay. The whole point of this list is that increased precision does not compensate for decreased accessibility to a non-technical audience.

Also, the “instead of…” below does not imply what the word actually means in its precise definition. It refers to how the word is often used outside of a technical context, which is to say either wrongly or unnecessarily — ”when they said that, they really just meant this.” It suggests a simpler way to get the point across without losing people with jargon.

Please suggest others in the comments…

From Statistics

  • “Priors” instead of assumptions; (if you want to get really nerdy, you can say “posteriors” instead of conclusions). (“All political discussion on Twitter is just people confirming their priors”)
  • N” instead of many (“It’s really an N-dimensional problem”)
  • N of 1” instead of unique. (“He’s an n of 1; good luck beating him”)
  • Dimensions/Dimensional” instead of sides/sided (see above)
  • Over-index” instead of bias (“Perhaps you’re over-indexing on your Bay Area experience”)
  • Non-zero possibility” instead of not impossible (“There’s a non-zero possibility that Trump could win again”)
  • Tail risks” instead of rare risks (aka Black Swans) (“We need to start thinking about the tail risks of climate change”)
  • Causal structure” instead of underlying reason (“There must be some causal structure behind why this happened”)
  • Stochastic” instead of random or statistically probable but not certain (“The stochastic nature of social mobility…”). Likewise “Deterministic” instead of predictable
  • Overweighting” instead of favoring (“We have overweighted the banking sector”)
  • “Monotonic” instead of “keeps going the way it’s going”, as opposed to “goes up and down”
  • Superlinear/sublinear” instead of growing faster or slower than expected
  • “Bimodal” instead of “two groups”
  • Pareto frontier” instead of best
  • Datum” singular, “Data” plural as in “The data show….” or “The time to resume operations is a key datum in probabilistic risk assessment”. Just use data singular — “The data shows a decrease in visitors to state parks…” — and never use datum.

From Mathematics

  • Orthogonal” instead of unrelated (“My political views are orthogonal to this conversation about you finishing your salad, young lady”)
  • “Asymptote” instead of limit (Him: “Our relationship seems to be approaching asymptote, so let’s get married. Her: When you put it that way, no”). Likewise using “Asymptotically” when you mean “approximately” (as in approaching the limit of…)
  • “Inflection point” instead of turning point
  • Calculus” instead of calculation, strategy, or approach (“My calculus on this deal is that we charge them more than it costs us”)
  • Function of” instead of “due to” (“My daytime napping is a function of your nightime snoring”)
  • Parameters” instead of factors
  • Parameterize/Dimensionalize” instead of specify
  • Factor” (verb) instead of simplify
  • Modulo” instead of “aside from” (“I’m a vegetarian modulo bacon bits”)
  • “Globally” instead of overall
  • “Set” instead of group
  • “Exponential growth” instead of fast growth. As it happens, most growth people describe as exponential is actually polynomial although in fairness nerds are less guilty of that than most.
  • “QED” instead of “proven” or “shown”, but usually “there we go” is sufficient.
  • “First Order”, “Second Order”, “Third Order” instead of obvious, less obvious etc
  • Surface Area” instead of scope or likelihood (“If you want to increase your surface area for serendipity, it is fine to have a longer tail of small allocations in your portfolio.”) (extra points for the long tail reference, which I have humbly omitted from this list)
  • Formally” instead of “strictly speaking”
  • Forcing function” instead of reason
  • Topology” instead of landscape
  • Platonic ideal” instead of just ideal. This comes from Plato’s concept of geometrically perfect basic forms, on which more complex geometry is based. But in regular use, it’s typically unnecessary and showy

From Medicine

From Latin

  • De novo” instead of from the beginning, or anew
  • “A priori” instead of “beforehand”/”ahead of time” or “by definition”
  • Erratum” instead of error
  • Praxis” instead of practice
  • “In vivo” (in a body), “In vitro” (in a lab), “in silico” (in a simulation), “in situ” (in its natural place) instead of, well, those words in parentheses
  • In toto” instead of in total
  • De minimus” instead of not much
  • Sine qua non” instead of necessary
  • Ne plus ultra” instead of best
  • Mutatis mutandis” instead of essentially (“what is true of undergraduate teaching in England is equally true, mutatis mutandis, of American graduate schools”)
  • Ad hoc” instead of as-needed or one-off. Slightly related to the much more pretentious Britishism “bespoke”, for custom
  • In medias res” instead of in the middle
  • Cui bono” instead of stands to gain. (“When investigating a crime, it’s important to consider cui bono.”)
  • Tertiary” and “Quaternary” instead than third and fourth (don’t ask me why “secondary” is fine, but after that it gets pretentious)

From Chemistry

  • “Activation energy” instead of trigger (“The longer quarantine goes on, my activation energy to get out of bed just keeps going up”)
  • “Titrate” instead of adjust (“I definitely titrate my news consumption depending on my mood”)
  • Annealing” rather than refining (“I’ve been annealing that lambda function to make it run faster”)
  • “Valence” instead of characteristic: (“While there’s a veneer of innocence to these home movies, their most powerful valence is not one of innocence but of self-effacing knowledge.”)
  • Multivalent” instead of varied: (“The reality is that the Joker already had a multivalent political identity, long before this new movie was conceived”)
  • Catalyst” instead of driver of change (“They will be a catalyst in our organization”)
  • Limiting Reagent” instead of “gating factor” or “limiting factor”. Most pretentious when used outside of chemistry. The thing that limits how far a system can go.
  • Synthesize” instead of make
  • Catalyze” instead of make happen

From Biology

  • “Substrate” instead of basis or foundation
  • Phenotype” or “Morphology” instead of appearance. (“That lady has an interesting phenotype”)
  • “Expressed” instead of exhibited (from gene expression) (“He was expressing his mansplaining trait at whole standup this morning”)
  • Conserved” instead of common (from evolutionary genetics). (“We found a preference for both cat and dog videos conserved across our entire cohort”)
  • Endogenous/Exogenous” instead of internal/external
  • Isomorphic” instead of “look alike”
  • Chiral” instead of “moves in clockwise/counterclockwise direction”
  • Cleave” instead of separate
  • Homology” instead of similarity (“The structural homology between the socioeconomic status of individuals and their cultural preferences…”)

From Physics

  • First Principles” instead of physics. (“My new pogo stick design is based on first principles”)
  • “Dissonant” instead of wrong
  • “Resonate” instead of agree
  • Non-trivial” instead of hard (“Shipping the code by the end of the day is non-trivial, boss”)
  • Trivial” normally a fine word, but risks being pretentious when it just means “something I already know how to do (but maybe other people don’t)”.
  • Reductive” instead of oversimplified. (“Calling love a feeling is so reductive”)
  • “Orders of Magnitude” instead of a lot.
  • Paradigm” instead of concept
  • “Paradigm shift” instead of change
  • Vector” instead of direct/send on a path (“I’ll vector that report to you”)
  • Hysteresis” instead of stickiness (“I think the post-Covid environment will exhibit significant WFH hysteresis”)
  • Degenerate” instead of the same.
  • Invariant” — instead of no change.
  • Periodic” — instead of repeating.
  • Phase Transition” — instead of a significant change in state.
  • “Decouple” — instead of separate
  • Decompose” instead of separate. (“Let’s decompose the elements of this argument”)
  • “Quantum leap” In physics, it’s the smallest possible leap (such as of an electron from one energy level to another). It’s now misused to mean any large step
  • Invoking any fancy physics concept or physicist name, such as: “eigen” anything (vector, value, etc), “Schrodinger” anything (cat, wave equation, etc), “Heisenberg” (uncertainty principle), “Einsteinian” (time/space, mass/energy, relativity, etc), Newtonian, Lagrangian, Bohr, Pauli, Fermi, etc
  • Also, it’s cool that you know what a “Hamiltonian”, “Jacobian” and “Hessian” are, but don’t tell us. You mean “math”.
  • Likewise for “Cartesian” coordinates and “Euclidian” space. They both mean regular x/y/z coordinates and regular flat space. Use “regular” instead
  • Lightcone” instead of essentially all. (Sam Altman: “if OpenAI cracks AGI, it could capture the lightcone of all future value in the universe” source)

From Computer Science

  • Back propagate” instead of influence. (“Restricting your speech back-propagates to restricting your thoughts”)
  • High-dimensional” instead of complicated (“That’s a high-dimensional problem”)
  • Map” instead of match (“That maps to what we were talking about before”)
  • “Parse” instead of understand, “regex” instead of parse (“Let me parse what you’re saying”)
  • Graph” instead of network
  • “NP-hard” instead of super hard
  • Compile” instead of collate
  • Defrag” instead of optimize
  • “Unpack” instead of explain
  • Enumerate” instead of list (this is of course not just a CS term, but its CS meaning makes it prone to overuse by nerds)
  • Refactor” instead of reorganize
  • “Heuristic” instead of formula
  • High order bit” instead of “Most important thing”
  • Open-source” instead of publish
  • Edge cases” or “Corner cases” instead of “rare events”
  • Bricked” instead that “completely broken” (“the coffee machine is bricked”)
  • “Ping” instead of “remind” or “check up on”
  • Algorithm” instead of procedure
  • “Core dump” instead of summary (“Okay, here’s a core dump of everything that happened at the party”)
  • “Binary Choice”. A choice with only two options. People think it comes from binary numbers in computers, but it actually comes from decision trees with binary branching
  • Tractable” instead of doable.
  • Vector aligned” instead of well-matched
  • Primitives” instead of building blocks
  • Adversarial” instead of different
  • Federate” instead of split up
  • Haptic” instead of tactile
  • Solve” as a noun, instead of solution. (“People talk about batteries as a solve to climate change” source)

From Electrical Engineering

  • “Bandwidth” instead of capacity (“I don’t have enough bandwidth for that”)
  • Impedance matched” instead of compatible
  • “Mux” (multiplex) Instead of blend or merge (“Let me mux what Sophia and Emma just said”)
  • Signal-to-noise” instead of just quality. (“The signal-to-noise of the comments on that post was super low”)

From General STEM

  • Any use of a variable that is a defined term of art in one industry, when used outside of that industry. Such as “delta” (change) “alpha” (excess return in finance), “beta” (test), etc

From Economics

  • Equilibriate” instead of “reach equilibrium”. To be honest, this is actually a pretty great word. It’s just a bit fancy.
  • “Pareto” (verb) instead of “80/20” or optimize (“After we Pareto our marketing, we’re going to be rich”)
  • Nash equilibrium” instead of stable mediocrity (“I’m against cancel culture because it causes society to glide into Nash equilibrium”)
  • Game theory” (v) instead of analyze. Most occurrences are along the lines of “if you game theory it, you’d find that” but don’t actually use any game theory
  • “GTO” (Game Theory Optimal) instead of optimal. Likewise “Game Theoretic
  • Marginal utility” instead of advantage (“The marginal utility of getting up in the morning is really falling in quarantine”)
  • Moral hazard” instead of lack of consequences
  • Secular” instead of lasting, as in secular trends. Same for “structural”, as in structural change
  • Adverse selection” instead of spelling it out for those who don’t know the term: when one party in a transaction takes advantage of having more information than the other
  • Colinear” instead of what you probably mean, which is correlated (okay, “positively correlated”, if you must)

From Finance:

  • Alpha” instead of advantage. Like in this example: “We’ve been fighting for open source AI to be championed by many organizations because there you can equilibrate the alpha relative to the market of AIs” (source)
  • Bullish/Bearish” instead of optimistic/pessimistic
  • Call Option/Put Option” instead of “bet on/bet against”
  • “Short/Long” ditto
  • “NPV” (net present value) instead of simply “value” (guy in boardroom: “The NPV of our people’s happiness…”)
  • EV” (expected value, which means the value of something in the future times its probability of occurring) instead just “value”. A particular verbal twitch in “effective altruist” circles (SBF etc), the less said about the better.
  • “Preserve optionality” instead of “do nothing” (or, more politely, “wait and see”)
  • Talk my/their book” instead of “promote my/their views”
  • Leverage” (either verb or noun) instead of “use” (verb) or “power/influence” (noun)
  • Arbing” instead of arbitraging

From Project Management

  • Re-baseline” (verb) instead of throwing one’s assumptions out of the window and starting from scratch
  • Stakeholder” instead of whoever it concerns
  • Ideate” instead of brainstorm
  • Tradespace” instead of market or range (“What’s my favorite dried bean variety? I haven’t explored the tradespace enough to properly answer the question.”)
  • Steel-man” (opposite of straw-man) instead of defend. (“Let me steel-man the argument for drug legalization”)

From Social Sciences

  • Normative” instead of usual, standard or accepted
  • Hedonic” instead of fun or pleasurable
  • Ontological” instead of conceptual
  • Salient” instead of important
  • “Lend credence” instead of “agree with”
  • Significantly <adjective>-er” instead of “more/less <adjective>”
  • Apropos” instead of “regarding”
  • Utilize” instead of use (Utilize means use for a purpose not normally intended)
  • Interrogate” instead of “explore” or “probe”. (“You can interrogate the role that slavery played in Regency England without diminishing your love for Jane Austen.”)
  • Metonym” instead of shorthand or slang
  • Tautological” instead of self-evident or repetitious
  • Canon/Canonical” instead of truth, fundamental
  • Counterfactual” instead of fictional
  • Dialectic” instead of debate or tension (“There is a push and pull dialectic between the cultural meanings of amphetamine” source)
  • Coterminous” instead of adjacent
  • Problematize” instead of make into a problem
  • Bounded” — usually unnecessary. As in “American-bounded” vs just “American”
  • Lacuna” instead of gap. (“The discovery of a lacuna in his theory prompted deep existential despair, which explains the drinking”)
  • Rubric” instead of topic or subject (“such ideas fall naturally under the rubric of postmodernism”)
  • Epistemic” instead of expert (“The paper explores the role of epistemic communities in shaping policy decisions”)
  • Heterodox” instead of original or unusual (“The scholar’s heterodox approach to the sociopolitical dynamics of late capitalist societies challenges conventional wisdom”)

From SciFi

  • “Grok” instead of understand (from Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land)
  • Decloak” instead of unveil (Star Trek ref)
  • “Red pill”. “Blue pill”, “Black pill”, “White pill”. All Matrix references, derived from “red pill” as in to embark on a dislocating process and “blue pill” as to reaffirm the status quo. All the other colors are made up to suit the creator.

From Military:

  • Attritable” instead of “disposable”
  • Weaponized” instead of “used against my wishes” (“my doctor is weaponizing cholesterol against my food preferences”)
  • Mission Creep” instead “not on plan”
  • Out of Scope” ditto
  • Surface” (verb, as in submarine rising to the surface) instead of reveal ( “When we refactored the app, our cohort made a non-linear, quantum leap when we determined that surfacing the stakeholder parameters was necessary”)
  • “Blast Radius” instead of area of influence/impact
  • “Ballistic” instead of angry as in “he went ballistic”. Referring to the incoming path of an ICBM. The reason this is used to mean “angry” is that when the ICBM ends its boost phase and enters its ballistic phase, that means that its ultimate target and outcome (boom) is already determined.
  • “Non-linear” instead of crazy, as in “he went non-linear”. Although this can refer to any curve other than a straight line, the common parlance refers to chaotic or exponential behavior
  • “Ground zero” from nuclear weapons, the point on the ground directly underneath an air blast. Misused to mean the the center of any effect, so that has become the conventional meaning now
  • “Broken Arrow” something that is extremely important or valuable that is lost, damaged beyond repair, or accidentally used. The original meaning was a nuclear weapon that is no longer under control, such as after an bomber crash.
  • “Defcon” acronym for “defense readiness condition”, followed by a whole number value between 5 and 1 with 1 being the most severe (IE: war) and 5 being normal. Most people get this backwards, thinking Defcon 5 is the worst.
  • “Attack Surface” instead of vulnerabilities. Now used in computer security to describe the many ways a hacker could penetrate a system
  • Left of boom”/“Right of boom” instead of before or after an event

--

--