Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

Science fiction and technology vocabulary and idioms • Cyber • Android • Robot • Living in a parallel universe • On the same wavelength • It's not rocket science • Darmok

Hi, everyone! I really enjoy science fiction - that is, made-up stories that involve science and technology - so I thought I’d talk about some idioms and vocabulary from that genre of stories today.

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To start with vocabulary, let me first talk about the prefix cyber. Like many parts of the English language, it comes from Greek. It means something like “to control” or “to steer”. It first got applied to technology in a famous 1948 book by mathematician Norbert Wiener called “Cybernetics”. In that book, he discussed machines that could regulate themselves. Nowadays, cyber refers to anything having to do with computers or information technology.

I’m sure you’ve heard cyber used in many words. Cyberspace is another word for the internet. Militaries today prepare for cyber warfare. At one time, before smart phones, people went to a cybercafé to use the internet.

In science fiction, we often see cyborgs. That’s a shortened word for “cybernetic organism”. A cyborg is a regular, living person who has been enhanced through technological implants. In science fiction, we also see totally artificial people, which are called androids or robots. In a previous post, I mentioned the superhero movie “Justice League”, in which there’s a character named Cyborg. In the Avengers superhero movies, there’s an android named Vision. (Note here the pronunciation of robot - row-baht, like the Thai baht currency - even though it has two “o’s” in it.)

Science fiction and technology have led to many English idioms and sayings, too.

One example is living in a parallel universe. In science fiction, a parallel universe is a world that is very similar to ours, but we can never travel there. Think of parallel lines from geometry. Parallel lines run right next to one another, but never touch. We use the phrase “living in a parallel universe” when we strongly disagree with someone. We think the person is crazy or out of touch with reality. You and the person can never see eye to eye. You might say about a co-worker or acquaintance, “I think he’s a smart guy, but he’s living in a parallel universe!” This saying is used to criticize people, so be careful with it.

An opposite idiom is to be on the same wavelength. All kinds of radiation have a wavelength. Some wavelengths make the light we see. Others cook our food in microwave ovens. Two-way radios - which can send and receive messages - also use wavelengths.

However, you must be on the same wavelength - or channel - to talk with someone. In a sense, your wavelengths must agree with one another. So, the phrase “to be on the same wavelength” has come to mean that you agree with someone and see the world the same way she does.

Finally, I have one more saying - it’s not rocket science. Sometimes tasks or projects are very hard. Others are very simple. But sometimes people make easy projects seem hard. Maybe they lack the necessary skills. Maybe they’re trying to make their project look more important than it really is.

If you want to criticize someone for making an easy project seem hard, you might say, “It’s not rocket science!” This idiom might be easy to understand. Sending rockets into space is a very hard thing to do, of course. So if something is not rocket science, it’s pretty easy. Again, we say this when we want to criticize someone, so be careful with this saying.

Want to see more idioms and saying inspired by science and technology? Check out these two articles for more!

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I have one last item for today. I have always loved an episode of the science fiction series Star Trek called “Darmok”. In this episode, the crew meet a new species, but no one can communicate with them. They are able to translate the words, but they cannot figure out the meaning. That’s because the species only speaks in idioms and cultural references! See the first few minutes of the episode here:

Let me give you one example from the show. The alien often says, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. He’s referring to an ancient story in their culture when two heroes cooperated to defeat a common enemy. So, basically he’s saying, “Let’s cooperate.” However, the humans have no way of knowing that because they don’t know the culture!

I felt this way when I started teaching English. I would often use idioms and cultural references. I had to cut all idioms and sayings from my speech so that my students would understand. This also inspired me to later start this newsletter!

Other people appreciate “Darmok”, too. I spotted this tweet on Twitter the other day.

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