5 Expert Phrases That Explain Ideas You Should Understand
Animals are all around us.
Their presence is so common, their characteristics so familiar to us, it's no surprise that we use them as the basis for all sorts of metaphors to describe how the world works. We use animal-related metaphors to describe economic principles, politicians, diagnostic guidelines, and how we sometimes pee on things to claim them. If you ever hear someone mention an animal in a bit of folksy wisdom, you can be sure they're speaking The Truth, and if that never happens to you, then I invite you to read the examples here and become the wise one in your circle of friends.
"The Dead Cat Bounce"
"The dead cat bounce" is a colorful phrase that originated in the investing community. It's used to describe a stock or other security whose price has been dropping but that suddenly sees a small upswing. Rather than indicating a turnaround in the fortunes of that stock, the upswing is only temporary, and soon after the price continues to fall. That blip is called a dead cat bounce, inspired by the idea that even a dead cat will bounce if you drop it -- that doesn't mean it's still alive. And if you think that's disgusting, count yourself lucky, because it is by some margin the most flattering anecdote there is about the investment community.
"Hi Barry, this is Barry. We are awful garbage shit men, aren't we?"
It makes sense because dead cats have a lot of physical properties. Squishiness, odor, all that. Elasticity, probably. I haven't been able to find any research demonstrating that last one, and the people at the SPCA won't even take my calls anymore, but it seems reasonable. From a great enough height, a dead cat would probably bounce a bit. I haven't tested this theory myself, but I could see where the phrase could be relatable to such a predatory, life-crushing system like the stock market.
"Wow. That one was like 8 inches, at least."
And if you don't find it too disgusting, there's no reason not to apply the same thinking to anything that displays a late, probably doomed comeback. Your battered football team scores a third-quarter touchdown and is now down by only 16? Dead cat bounce. A fading celebrity stars in a low-budget indie movie that isn't terrible? Dead cat bounce. Your patching up a misguided relationship with someone who's clearly wrong for you? Dead cat bounce.
"Here's what I think of your cat, and here's what I think of YOU, Karen!"
"The Post Turtle"
The phrase "post turtle" derives from a story that sounds almost certainly made up, but don't let that detract from the fun. The story goes that you're driving through the country, or at least to, like, a pretty unfashionable part of town, and along the side of the road is a fence. And there, perched atop one of the fence posts is a turtle. Naturally, you yank on the handbrake, pull hard left on the wheel, and leap out the driver's side door, then walk over, unscathed, to investigate. And, sure enough, your first impression was right. There's a turtle, on a fence post.
"What's up? Me. I'm up, motherfucker."
The turtle doesn't belong there, clearly didn't get there on his own, and is completely stuck unless you help it down. So the phrase is commonly used to describe politicians, implying they've been put into a job they have no business being in and are utterly helpless while there. You can go ahead and apply it to any politician you don't like. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Felt good, didn't it? Insults always make you feel like a bigger person. And there's no reason to stop with politicians! The concept of a post turtle can be applied to many people, especially in the workplace. I bet some of your bosses or co-workers have been post turtles, haven't they? Hell, you might be one yourself.
"The Spherical Cow"
As our greatest minds have pointed out, science is kind of complicated. The good news is that there are stripped-down, simplified versions of many scientific and engineering calculations that we can use when we don't want to strap on the big science hip waders to tackle a problem. There's no need to use relativistic calculations to figure out the trajectory of a baseball.
Relatively speaking, this is going to hurt.
A baseball is a good example: the basic scientific calculations that describe acceleration and force are pretty straightforward, high school-level stuff. But even these can get pretty complicated when we have to consider friction or air resistance, or objects of an unusual shape. When students are just learning these calculations, they're often instructed to ignore friction or air resistance or, if not, to assume objects have a uniform shape. Enter the spherical cow.
"WE SHOULD NOT BE."
The spherical cow might show up in a problem about projectile cows or buoyant cows or something like that. And sure that sounds ridiculous, and then a bit more so when you start to consider the sounds they'd make rolling down a hill while a farmer angrily throws his hat in the dirt, but these simplifying assumptions can be useful. Even expert scientists, with black belts and long, wispy beards, will use gross oversimplifications like this to quickly hone in on an approximate answer, which is sometimes good enough for their purposes. And if not, these crude approximations can still be useful for guiding the way for further, more detailed research.
That should stop them from rolling away, at least.
Weasels have terrible PR, their name synonymous with unflattering behavior like sneakiness and treachery. Which is a little inaccurate; in the wild, weasels are almost never pulling confidence scams or signing you up for extended warranties. They're just incredibly bloodthirsty.
"But seriously, these extended warranties provide so much peace of mind, and if you'll just
be willing to expose your throat for a second, I can show you ..."
"Weasel words" describe a type of language people sometimes use to confuse or obfuscate what they're actually saying, so named because of the weasel's reputation for duplicity. Weasel words can make weak statements sound stronger, strong statements sound weaker, or conceal who is making the statement. They usually take the form of vague attributions like "experts say" or "it is said that" to conceal that there is no actual source for the statement or that the author is trying to hide the fact that they're the one making that statement. Another common tactic is to use "probably" or "occasionally" to weaken an overly bold claim.
"Odd that I've not seen these experts that say 'Bush did 9/11.' They must be pretty elusive."
Weasel words are a big challenge on Wikipedia for obvious reasons, but their use is widespread across the entire Internet. It pains me to admit, but experts are pretty certain that I have myself used weasel words quite a bit in my writing. All those columns slandering Ted Danson, for example.
"If Cracked says Ted Danson is probably the Zodiac Killer, that's all I need."
"Think Horses, Not Zebras"
Zebras, unless you're an eccentric billionaire, zookeeper, or lion, are probably quite rare in your part of the world. And that's OK! There's no shame in that!
Dry your eyes, little one.
And it's the zebra's relative scarcity that has led to it being used as the subject of a useful saying in the field of medicine when diagnosing a set of symptoms. The full quote, attributed to Dr. Theodore Woodward, goes: "When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras." In his case, the zebra he's referring to is an exotic or unusual disease, something rare and unlikely but far more memorable to a medical student than something more mundane but also more likely. If a patient comes in with a cough, it's much more likely to be a common cold, rather than an alien chest-burrower.
"I'm definitely hearing some Andromeda Syndrome in there."
But we can expand this concept of the "zebra" to any field where predictions of rare outcomes could occur. Problem with your computer? No, you probably haven't been hacked. Try rebooting it. The police are investigating a murder? Where was the spouse or partner? You found hoof prints up and down your spouse or partner's body?
They're probably sleeping with a horse, not a zebra.
For more from Buchholz, check out 7 Commonly Corrected Grammar Errors (That Aren't Mistakes) and 7 Brilliantly Poetic Phrases Accidentally Invented by Sports.
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