Nerd Urban Dictionary

11 mins read

These are perfectly good words in their native sci/tech/biz context, but risk being pretentious when used utilized 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

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”)
    • 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”)


From Mathematics

    • Orthogonal” instead of unrelated (“My political views are orthogonal to this conversation about you finishing your salad, young lady”)
    • Tangential” instead of minute/minor, part, sub, branch, or side (bonus points for using tangential and one of the instead of words EX: ”tangential branch”)
    • 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”)
    • 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”)
    • 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


From Medicine

  • Cohort” instead of group
  • Apoptosize” instead of die. (“my last brain cell of the week apoptosed at the words “html 5 super computer”) 


From Latin

  • De novo” instead of from the beginning, or anew
  • A Priori” instead of “beforehand”/”ahead of time”
  • “Ceteris paribus” instead of “all else being the same””
  • “Desiderata” instead of requirements or desired properties
  • “Erratum” instead of error

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.”)
  • Catalyst” instead of driver of change (“They will be a catalyst in our organization”)

From Biology

  • Substrate” instead of basis or foundation
  • Phenotype” instead of appearance. (“That lady has an interesting phenotype”)
  • Expressed” instead of exhibited (from gene expression)

From Physics

    • 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”)
    • Reductive” instead of simplified. (“Calling love a feeling is so reductive”)
  • “Orders of Magnitude” instead of a lot.
    • “Paradigm shift” instead of change
    • Vector” instead of direct/send on a path (“I’ll vector that report to you”)
    • Degenerate” instead of the same.
    • Invariant” – instead of no change.
    • Symmetry breaking” – instead of distinguishing two 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) 

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”)

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 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”)


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


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

  • Decloak” instead of unveil (Star Trek ref)


Older ones (from the Space Age/Cold War), many of which were misused enough that their meanings have changed in common parlance:


    • 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
    • Grok instead of understand (from Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land)
    • Ballistic instead of angry as in “he went ballistic”. Referring to the incoming path of an ICBM
    • 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
  • Quantum leap from physics, the jump of an electron from one state to another, with no intermediate position. In physics, it’s the smallest possible leap. It’s now misused to mean any large step function
  • Broken Arrow something that is extremely important or valuable that is lost, damaged beyond repair, or accidentally used. Comes from nuclear weapons.

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.

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