A crowdsourced list of sci/tech/biz words 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.

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”)
  • 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 (as in calling Trump a “stochastic terrorist” because his tweets inspire random violence)
  • Overweighting” instead of outweighing

From Mathematics

  • Orthogonal” instead of unrelated (“My political views are orthogonal to this conversation about you finishing your salad, young lady”)
  • Tangential” instead of minor or distractingly irrelevant. (“That’s a tangential topic. Let’s stay on track..”)
  • “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”)
  • “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
  • 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
  • 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.”)
  • 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”

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

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”)
  • “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”)

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”

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” instead of something I already know how to do.
  • Reductive” instead of simplified. (“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.
  • Symmetry breaking” — instead of choosing between two similar ideas.
  • Periodic” — instead of repeating.
  • Phase Transition” — instead of a significant change in state.
  • “Decouple/recouple” — instead of tune in or tune out (e.g. of a project)
  • “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

From Computer Science

  • 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
  • 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”)
  • “Feedback” instead of assessment, critique. Originally from control theory, as opposed to feedforward systems
  • “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

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”)

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

  • “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
  • Marginal utility” instead of advantage (“The marginal utility of getting up in the morning is really falling in quarantine”)
  • Steep learning curve” instead of hard to learn (“This software has a steep learning curve.”) [Note: in machine learning within computer science, a steep learning curve actually indicates a model learns quickly, not slowly.]

From Finance:

  • 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…”)
  • “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)

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

From Social Sciences

  • Normative” instead of usual or standard
  • 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)

From SciFi

  • “Grok” instead of understand (from Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land)
  • Decloak” instead of unveil (Star Trek ref)

From Military:

  • 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”)
  • “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

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