Words, Phrases, Expressions, and Idioms

Here are words and phrases I encounter that I don’t already know. Whenever I run across something new, I’ll make a note to look it up. The next time I have a few minutes, I’ll do some research.

Often, I don’t put them here the first time I see them. Rather, I’ve seen the word before and deciphered it from context, but at some point I finally overcame the inertia to look up the definition. Often, I find I had been wrong about it for years.

So, some of these are very new, and some are words I’ve just been “faking” for years.

“simulacrum”

image or representation

This seems to be used to refer to an actual physical thing that simulates something else. I think we use the word “simulation” for this quite a bit, though that word seems to be tilted to the experience of a simulacrum.

So, a picture, for instance, might be a simulacrum (noun) that simulates (verb) something and therefore provides a simulation (noun) to its observers.

Found In: An episode of Buck Rogers was centered around an alien being who created an exact copy of Searcher and its inhabitants. The fake humans were referred to as “simulacrums” several times.

“yak shaving”

This is a term from IT which means to perform some seemingly pointless activity which (1) is required to complete a larger, more important tasks; or (2) is done as a form of procrastination or incidental to the more important tasks.

Often, to complete Task X, a programmer must do Task A, which leads to Task B, then Task C, etc. By the time they finally get to working on Task X, they’ve been “yak shaving” the entire day, just to get to the point where they can do the actual work they needed to do in the first place.

Other times, they find all sorts of things in the process of working on Task X which they decide to complete, either just because “I’m already in there” or as an active form of avoiding working on Task X.

The term originated with Carlin Vieri at MIT in the 90s. He described where he got the term to the Amex developers blog:

I used to play hockey late on Tuesday nights. I would have dinner at midnight Tuesdays and watch TV, and I saw the “Yak Shaving Day” episode. I thought it was so odd, that later when I was struggling to overnight a document (getting permission from an admin, setting up a DHL account, getting a PO, all that nonsense), I told my officemate I was yak shaving. Over the next few weeks/months, I tried to get folks around the lab to use the term, and Jeremy Brown really liked it. He used it in his GSB post a couple of years after I left the lab.

Found In: The book Kill It With Fire, which is about modernizing legacy IT systems used the term frequently.

“Dickensian”

It means something related to the works of Charles Dickens, but is usually used to refer to depressing circumstances, as Dickens often told stories of the poor of Victorian England.

From The Free Dictionary:

Of, relating to, or reminiscent of the works of Charles Dickens, especially with regard to […] grim depictions of the plight of children and the urban poor.

From The Cambridge Dictionary:

relating to or similar to something described in the books of Charles Dickens, especially living or working conditions that are below an acceptable standard:

Found In: Reading a book on science history, one scientist’s life was depicted in a sad retrospective, at one point being said to “reach its Dickensian nadir.”

“Manic Pixie Dream Girl”

Wikipedia: Manic Pixie Dream Girl

A label for a increasingly common stock character in recent film and fiction.

[Manic Pixie Dream Girls] are usually static characters who have eccentric personality quirks and are unabashedly girlish. They invariably serve as the romantic interest for a (most often brooding or depressed) male protagonist.

This is the quixotic and irrepressible girl that forces her bubbly personality onto an otherwise depressed male and rescues him from some emotional torment or depression.

The term was coined by Nathan Rabin in a 2007 review of the film Elizabethtown. Speaking of star Kirsten Dunst:

Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.

In a 2014 essay, Rabin apologized for the term:

The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize.

There is a less common male corollary: the Manic Pixie Dream Guy.

Found In: I found an article called 16 “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” Things Women Have Confessed To That Honestly Have Me Dying on Buzzfeed. I instantly recognized the archetype, though I never heard the name.

“athwart”

to stand in opposition to

Found In: William F. Buckley famously said:

A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

“Captain Bligh”

Wikipedia: William Bligh

William Bligh was the (purportedly) ruthless and cruel captain of the HMS Bounty, the crew of which famously mutinied in 1789. Bligh and his loyalists were set adrift in a small boat, and the Bounty continued on to the Pitcairn Islands, where the mutineers settled with some Polynesian women they had abducted (and where their descendants remain today).

Found In: Buck Rogers observes Admiral Asimov (actually, an evil clone of him) berating the crew of the Searcher. He later says, “You were acting like Captain Bligh.”

“majoritarian”

the philosophy or practice according to which decisions of an organized group should be made by a numerical majority of its members

The definition above is actually for “majoritarianism,” which appears to be the simple belief in using a majority to decide things. A “majoritarian view” would – I think – be a view that someone believes is held by the majority.

Found In: The book The Conservative Heart held that Conservative political views were “majoritarian,” and conservatives should begin to state that openly.

“the fault in our stars”

This is a line from Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Cassius is trying to explain to Brutus that their current lives were not due to fate (“not in our stars”).

Found In: In a 1980 episode of Buck Rogers, Dr. Goodfellow refers to “the fault in our stars.” This caught my ear because I only knew the phrase as the title of the 2012 young adult novel and the 2014 movie adaption.

“Coolidge effect”

Wikipedia: Coolidge Effect

This specifically refers to a biological phenomenon in animals where males will have sex more often if they are presented with a variety of partners, rather than the same partner over and over again.

The source is humorous:

The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown [separately] around an experimental government farm

When [Mrs. Coolidge] came to the chicken yard she noticed that a rooster was mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.”

Upon being told, the President asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” President: “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

This can be extrapolated beyond sex to life in general. Humans get bored with the same thing over and over again, and will exhibit behaviors more enthusiastically in response to variety and novelty.

“parasocial”

Wikipedia: Parasocial Interaction

A recent word to describe a pseudo-relationship that a viewer feels with a public performer. This is an increasing phenomenon given the unprecedented access that social media has given us to the lives of public figures. There used to be a clear separation between viewer and performer, but that has diminished over time, resulting in this neurosis.

From Wikipedia:

[…] repeated exposure to the media persona causes the media user to develop illusions of intimacy, friendship, and identification. Positive information learned about the media persona results in increased attraction, and the relationship progresses. Parasocial relationships are enhanced due to trust and self-disclosure provided by the media persona.

From The Blurred Lines of Parasocial Relationships: The disappearing divide between “followers” and “friends”:

The openness and candor with which many online creators speak is more than many average people would divulge to friends and family, and more than friends and family might divulge to them.

For some, these information bytes form the basis of a parasocial relationship: instead of discussing a recent video posted by “someone they follow,” a fan might speak about “someone they know,” going so far as to refer to their favorite creator as a friend.

Found In: From the article linked in the description.

“fatuous”

Foolish or silly, especially in a smug or self-satisfied way

Sounds kind of like “facetious,” but has no relation.

Found In: I was watching a documentary about art forgery (Made You Look). The core conflict of the documentary was whether Ann Freedman knew dozens of paintings were forgeries. Someone said, “[Ann] made a comment that was especially fatuous.”

“mesofact”

A fact or truth or opinion that evolves very slowly, to the point where you don’t notice that it’s changed over a period of time.

This is not a traditional word. I think it was invented about a decade ago, first in this Boston Globe article: Warning: Your reality is out of date

When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.

But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime.

“mesa” is a Greek prefix for “middle,” which is the idea of the word: some things change quickly, some never change, but things in the “meso” change slowly.

I’ve seen the word many times in the 10 years since, so I think it’s achieved some level of adoption.

Some of the mesofacts mentioned in the article and in other places:

Some of these change because they’re naturally fluid (the population question, for example), while other change because new information and research appears and is slowly accepted over time.

Found In: I was reading Han Rosling’s book Factfulness, and he was talking about “The Destiny Gap,” which is when we assume that certain countries are just destined to live and work a certain way. He discussed about how countries change, just very slowly, to the point where we might not have noticed that they have changed at all, and our image of them is outdated. This got me remembering the idea of a mesofact, so I looked it up.

“gird your loins”

“Gird” means to prepare for action or danger. Back in Biblical times, men wore tunics that hung very low, not allowing them freedom of movement for battle. To “gird your loins” was to bundle your tunic up and tie it through your legs and around your waist like a pair of shorts so that you can fight more effectively.

Found In: I found a visual guide from The Art of Manliness on Reddit. I had heard the phrase before, most notably when Stanley Tucci’s character yells it in The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda is entering the building.

“chemophobia”

a fear of chemicals or chemistry

I could figure this one out from the word structure, but here’s the interesting thing about this – this is always irrational, because everything is chemicals. We tend to think “chemical” means something artificial, created in a lab. But water is a chemical. Everything is a chemical.

It is not possible to be rationally chemophobic. To do do would be incompatible with living as a human. When people express chemophobia, they usually mean the artificial manipulation of materials and elements by humans by scary guys in white lab coats. Chemicals themselves are technical harmless.

“based”

A slang word that’s very nebulous. It’s been defined, then co-opted by others. When used, you have to look at context, because different people use it to mean very different things.

In today’s general slang environment, “based” means to be true to yourself and not care what other people think. However, the alt-right has claimed the word to mean someone who is immune to Left-wing bias and “woke-ness.”

Consequently, some people consider the word to be derogatory, and would use “based” ironically to describe someone they considered to be intolerant or bigoted.

“abide”

to tolerate, withstand, to continue on

I always thought this just meant “obey,” but our pastor pointed out in a sermon that it actually means, effectively, “to continue obeying.”

Now, this caught my eye, of course, because of The Big Lebowski where the main character says, “The Dude abides” (at 0:48 in this video). By this, he doesn’t mean “The Dude obeys,” he means “The Dude continues on.”

From dictionarywiki:

“The Dude abides” essentially means, “The Dude is,” but it was not meant in a declarative or defiant sense. It was intended as an observation and statement of purpose. The Dude exists in peace with the many things that perturb him. There are many issues and problems, and he “abides” them, which means that he endures them and accepts them, withholding his approval but vowing his non-interference.

Found In: As noted, it came up in a sermon at church. It was clearly a word I had heard before, but fundamentally misunderstood.

“anointing with oil”

A Biblical practice meaning someone is sanctified or set apart. There’s a great deal of information about what the practice signifies and symbolizes, but very little about any original reason for the practice. Things that are symbolic are usually rooted it some practical purpose, but I could find very little on this.

From an explainer at Bible Study Tools:

[…] oil often signified prosperity, blessings, and stability, opposed to other periods throughout Israel’s history where the harvest was not bountiful and famine had swept the land.

Oil had sanctifying (cleansing) properties. Whenever someone poured oil on someone or something, they had set apart that object as a blessed object of the Lord.

Found In: I had read about this practice in various Bible verses. I was familiar with the basic process, but not what it signified. It seemed to be discussed as much in symbolic terms as it was in practical terms – meaning, people talked about it and what it meant more often than they actually did it.

“repast”

Merriam-Webster: repast

Both a noun and a verb meaning food or the act of eating.

Found In: On Kenan, the title character angrily says, “I don’t want to talk about my past!” Then, recovering, he says, “…I want to talk about my repast!” and turns his attention to some food in front of him.

“rapacious”

Merriam-Webster: rapacious

Greedy. Obsessed with acquiring money or possessions.

It’s from the base word “rapine,” which means “to seize” in Latin. A few words in Latin that being “rap-” have similar meanings.

Found In: In an episode of Buck Rogers, a race of aliens was described as “the most rapacious savages in the galaxy.”

“St. Elmo's Fire”

Wikipedia: St. Elmo's Fire

A weather phenomenon which sometimes occurs when vehicles move through electrically-charged clouds that causes visible static discharges and sometimes cause the wings of planes or the masts of ships to glow blue.

See 2:25 in this video.

Found In: I was watching an episode of Buck Rogers where a shuttle had lost power and was crashing. Buck said, “It might be St. Elmo’s Fire!” I thought this was ridiculous (as is most of the “science” in that show), but based on what I read, this might have been accurate.

Of course, that caught my ear because of the 1985 movie called St. Elmo’s Fire. This was a classic Brat Pack movie that I finally watched in 2020 when I had COVID. I’m sad to report that it was awful. St. Elmo’s Fire is mentioned in that movie, but it had no bearing on the plot, that I could tell.

“peremptory”

Arrogant, dictatorial, self-assured.

It’s similar to “preemptory,” which is an actual word, and what I thought this was. To “preempt” means to “cut in line,” which sometimes also fits the context. But peremptory is an entirely different word, it turns out.

Found In: In an episode of Buck Rogers, Buck is giving orders and one character remarks to another, “Is he always so peremptory?”

“the road to Damascus”

In Acts 9, Saul converted to Christianity while walking on the road to Damascus.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?””

The road to Damascus is used to refer to any large-scale change of feeling.

Found In: After the Soviet Union fell, a former communist official reportedly said, “The road to Damascus is crowded these days.”

“on tenterhooks”

A “tenter” is a frame to stretch clothing to dry. A “tenterhook” is the hook that attaches to the clothing to stretch it. Thus, to be “on tenterhooks” means to be stretched to the point of tension.

(I’m assuming “tenter” means “a thing that tents something,” like a verb. In this sense, “being on tent stakes” would mean the same thing, as tent stakes are something which pulls fabric to tension. But, for whatever reason, that didn’t catch on.)

Found In: Someone was waiting for important a phone call which was three hours overdue, and was described as “being on tenterhooks.”

“all politics is local”

An idiom that describes the reality of staying in political office.

Most politicians (especially those in Congress) are elected by a comparatively small geographic area, no matter how large their responsibilities become when in office. This means that they have to keep the voters from their district or state happy, because those voters don’t care about larger, national concerns. For the voter, the only issues that matter are the ones that affect them every day.

“donnybrook”

Merriam-Webster: donnybrook

A fight.

Donnybrook was a town in Ireland (now a district of Dublin) which was home to the Donnybrook Fair. That event became legendary for alcohol consumption and subsequent fist fights.

Found In: Ronald Reagan wrote in his dairy about getting into a “donny brook” (he used the space, which I think is incorrect) with Tip O’Neill about Social Security policy, referring to a 45-minute yelling match they held during a White House meeting in 1982. Both Reagan and O’Neill were Irish, which might have encouraged the usage.

“Howard Beale”

Wikipedia: Howard Beale

Howard Beale is a character in the 1976 film Network. He’s a news anchor who is troubled by the poor state of the world. At one point, while on the air, he is overcome with anger, and tells his watchers to open a window and scream into the night, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Here’s the scene.

Beale is considered symbolic of someone so justifiably and righteously angry about something that they reach their breaking point and go over the edge.

Found In: In an article about an outspoken New York restaurateur, he is referred to as “a Howard Beale for the Instagram generation.”

“The Gipper”

George Gipp was a football player at Notre Dame in the late 1910s. His nickname was “The Gipper.” He died of an infection during his senior year.

In the 1940 film, Knute Rockne, All-American, he was portrayed by Ronald Reagan. In his deathbed scene, Reagan implores his teammates to “…win just one for The Gipper.”

This character and line of dialog followed Reagan throughout his later political career as Governor of California and eventually President of the United States. Reagan was often referred to as “The Gipper,” and his political victories were sometimes framed as “winning one for The Gipper.”

Found In: I read the book “Tip and The Gipper: When Politics Worked” which was about the unique relationship Reagan had with his Democratic adversary, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

“portage”

Wikipedia: Portage

Technically the act of carrying something, but commonly used to refer to locations where watercraft are carried over land, which is extrapolated to refer to the place where watercraft are put into the water.

Found In: Saw a sign on the bike trails that had an icon of a canoe, the word “Portage,” and an arrow pointing to the slope where you put your canoe in the river.

“Collective Noun”

Refers to the noun used to describe groups of things:

This is an actual noun – you can refer to “the herd” or “the flock” or “the swarm.” I assume that most singular nouns have a collective equivalent? If it doesn’t, do you default to “group”? Here’s a big list.

Found In: On a phone call, someone said they “invited a gaggle of people.” It got me thinking.

“Mise-en-place”

Wikipedia: Mise en place

French for “putting in place,” it refers to the physical workspace of a craftsman. It was popularized as a term for a chef’s work area, arranged and organized for maximum productivity, but now refers to the general idea of optimizing one’s physical – and increasingly virtual – environment for work.

Found In: Anthony Bourdain used the term quite a bit in Kitchen Confidential. I ran into it again in a blog post entitled: Mise-en-Place for Knowledge Workers

“kenopsia”

I don’t think this an official word, but rather one that was invented and has become well-used. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines it as:

The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet – a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds […]

Merriam-Webster has no listing for it. Neither does Wiktionary.

Found In: There’s a subreddit called /r/kenopsia that’s filled with pictures that convey this feeling.

“anathema”

Merriam-Webster: anathema

Something intensely disliked.

Found In: In a phone conversation, someone called a solution “anathematic” to another solution, meaning (I assume) that the two solutions were not compatible with each other.

“jodhpur”

Wikipedia: Jodhpur boot

A boot with a buckled strap

Found In: A book about Ronald Reagan: “[he] was no longer the Hollywood guy, the hunk in swim trunks or jodhpurs.”

“semiotic”

Wikipedia: Semiotics

The study of sign processes

[…] a sign is defined as anything that communicates a meaning that is not the sign itself to the sign’s interpreter.

Found In: A book about engineering, which discussed the “semiotic meaning” of different structural designs.

Other Words

I used to do these as blog posts: