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Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Yan Z. '12

Aug 8, 2009

An Unofficial Guide to Unstandard MITglish, 1st Edition

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Life & Culture

Somewhere along the way, the MIT campus picked up a distinctive, localized dialect like a wandering hitchhiker on the sideroads of esoteric American English. Multiple observers nowadays report that naturalized speakers of MITglish enunciate consonants at the end of words with exaggerated clarity and make a point of crisp, rapid pronunciation in everyday conversation. A perceptive friend of mine from Tufts University made the mistake of mentioning this to a dinner table-ful of MIT students, who crisply and rapidly refuted her claims with a dazzling barrage of nicely articulated consonants. Sadly, the MIT dialect becomes imperceptible once you've pulled all-nighters arguing with fellow consonant-pronouncers about Question #12 on your 18.03 problem set, which happens to use a lot of consonant strings like 'dx' and 'dt' in permutations whose English pronunciations are the least of your worries right now.

Another can of lingual worms spilled over when I stumbled over the following twitch-inducing passage from Faulkner's Light in August:

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.

Perhaps there was a time when my brain's toolbox included a robust Faulkner parser, but as of right now, I feel like I need to run MATLAB before I can understand this paragraph. After confessing this to myself, it was hard to deny that MIT does in fact wipe the hard drives of your high school English Lit. education in order to install diskloads of nerdly lingo software on your language processors.

So, for the gentle edification of the incoming Class of 2013, I offer an introductory documentation of conversational phrases @ MIT that are likely to be, um, not-so-conversational at your local grocery store checkout aisle.

Function (noun): No list of overinflated jargon would be complete without this classic, all-purpose noun that instantly makes you sound scientifically saucy in virtually any context. Otherwise known as the ketchup of argumentative conversations, “function” may be overused but it hasn't lost its awesomely obnoxious flavor. Ex:
Person A: Pass the salt, please.
Person B: Is your request a function of the underseasoning of the fish sticks, or is it a function of the evolved need to consume nutritious minerals? In either case, the spacial coordinates of the salt are not within the domain of my arm.

Spacetime separation (noun): The notion of intertwined spacelike and timelike dimensions, as explored by Einstein et. al., is especially useful for sublimating the tritest of excuses/apologies/answering machine recordings.
Ex: Oops, it appears that either I am spacelike separated from my cell phone or you are timelike separated from a reasonable hour for phone calls. Please leave a message at an appropriate temporal distance from the beep.

Vacuously true (adj.): A statement is said to be vacuously true if it is simultaneously true and proudly misleading. Successful conversations between tired MIT students and regular people (parents, doctors, etc.) often depend upon liberal sprinklings of vacuous truths into the slurred speech of the former. Ex:
Doctor: Do you sleep well at least half the time on nights before tests?
Student: Yes.

[The student's response is vacuously true because half of zero is zero, which is the amount of time that the student spends sleeping on pre-test nights.]

Null set (noun): Usually used as an euphemism for a depressing lack of something.
Ex. 1: I had the null set for dinner yesterday because I overslept.
Ex. 2: According to Facebook, you and the null set are now in a relationship.

Nonlinear response (noun): A mild, vanilla-toned label for surprises that hatch like fuzzy baby birds from nullset-minded decisions and quickly mature into giant, grass-guzzling geese that ruin your lawn.
Ex: John isn't here right now because the virus pop-up windows on his desktop responded to his mouse clicks in a nonlinear fashion. We'll just bring him food and water.

Gaussian (adj.): A nimble adjective for describing things that look exactly as they should.
Ex. 1: See how the elevation of the land is highest near the peak of that mountain? The altitude vs. horizontal distance profile sure looks Gaussian!
Ex. 2: MIT's Stata Center is non-Gaussian.

Isotropic (adj.): Admittedly, I'm the only person who uses this word casually at MIT. It's best reserved for situations in which you are completely lost in a hallway that looks precisely the same as every other hallway you've seen in the last 15 minutes.
Ex: I couldn't find your room because all the floors in McCormick Hall are completely isotropic. I swear, even the whiteboards on everyone's doors had the same drawing of a benzene molecule.

Unstructural (adj.): Anywhere else in the civilized world, “unstructural” means “potentially unsafe, likely to suffer mechanical failure.” At MIT, “unstructural” means “run away from this as fast as you can.”
Ex: I hear that East Campus' homemade roller coaster is especially unstructural this year. Better start stockpiling for nuclear winter.

Entropically favorable (adj.): When the disheveledness of your dorm room/ personal appearance/ mental state attains mythic proportions, use of this term subtly transfers blame from your personal laziness to Professor Sadoway, who in all likelihood taught you about the reassuring properties of energetic favoritism in 3.091. Ex:
-Why are you using toothpaste squeezed from a ziplock bag?
-It was entropically favorable, Mom.

Discretization (noun): Discrete modeling of continuous processes epitomizes the philosophy that if you don't succeed at first, you might as well not succeed in smaller segments. Ex:
-Did you pass the swim test?
-I did in fact swim four laps, but the coach regarded my discretization of the pool's length into 32 intervals as mathematically unrigorous.

The list traipses on, but I'll hold the rest for the second edition of The Unofficial Guide to Unstandard MITglish. (Coming soon to a browser window near you! Mention this blog post and get an additional 20% discount off the low, low price of your guide. It's so low, it's actually a member of the null set.) Now if you'll excuse me, I need to debug my Faulkner MATLAB script before I get to Chapter 7.

Comments (Closed after 30 days to reduce spam)


Posted by: WTF on August 8, 2009

Wow.. I do a lot of entropically favorable deeds it seems.

Posted by: Bufkin ['14?] on August 8, 2009

Totally not what I expected from the title.

And now I'm tempted to change my voicemail message...

Posted by: Piper '12 on August 8, 2009

totally better than more about punting, tooling & hacking

one would think MITglish consists of only three words

(read: teach us more smile )

Posted by: whee on August 8, 2009

"Oops, it appears that either I am spacelike separated from my cell phone or you are timelike separated from a reasonable hour for phone calls. Please leave a message at an appropriate temporal distance from the beep."

Just made my day.

Posted by: M' 13 on August 8, 2009

Me too M'13, me too.

Posted by: Bolstein on August 8, 2009

@ whee:

Punt, tool, and hack were Officially Not Worth Explaining Anymore as soon as they appeared on a t-shirt (which you should buy anyway if you ever get a chance). There's some other overused vernacular gems that I like (hosed comes to mind), but I'd rather collect the words and phrases that stick in your brain even though you'll only hear them once or twice in your time at MIT. In fact, now that I think about it, more than on few on this list were probably said by me and nobody else.

The point of this comment is, go forth and invent language.

Posted by: Yan on August 8, 2009

Wow, that was witty and simply hilarious. You made my day as well! smile

Posted by: Isaac '13 on August 8, 2009

Entropically favorable was hands-down the best one on the list; I have another good one for you: intuitively pleasing

Posted by: Tommy '13 on August 8, 2009

Spacetime seperation and nonlinear response were definitely my favorites. Vacuously true was pretty good too, though smile I agree with the above posters - you made my day lol. I can't wait for the next installment :D Now if only I can get my parents to change the message on our answering machine...

Posted by: Olive ('14?) on August 8, 2009

YES! My friend just used "gaussian" last night! XD

Posted by: cristen on August 8, 2009

Yeah, I was going to say, I haven't heard a whole lot of these. I used "empty set" instead of "null set" once, function of course, and something along the lines of "unstructural" in a variety of circumstances, but the rest are completely foreign.

Posted by: Snively on August 8, 2009

entropically favorable was the best on the list ..
i myself keep using it a lot of times and in a lot of situations

Posted by: navdeep on August 8, 2009

Wa ha ha ha, amazing entry XD

Incidentally, I'm worried that someone may be misled that direction (after or before) does not matter to the temporal distance mentioned in that voicemail message ">.> Especially if the one trying to call me is in part a time continuum theorist.

Posted by: NathanArce on August 8, 2009

1. 'to the zeroth order', 'higher order effect' or other hints to doing a perturbative expansion:

Ex: To the zeroth order, I am taking only three classes this semester.

2. relevant/irrelavent: a bit too technical but not very uncommon among many physics students, borrowed from the jargon of 'renormalization group'.

Ex: Eating one more slice of pizza is likely to be irrelevant at your dieting fixed-point.

Posted by: Tarun on August 8, 2009

It turns out people outside of MIT are often confused by why I speak in math/physics terms at them.

Also, I have totally used "isotropic" a number of times in every day conversation raspberry

Posted by: shawn '11 on August 8, 2009

what why not where when and certainly no more thank you

Posted by: M.I.T....K.E.Y. >> M-O-U-S-E on August 8, 2009

I love your flexibility with language--or, rather, that of MIT students. (Not sure whom to credit.) I'll definitely keep "entropically favorable" in mind; it evokes such nice memories. Looking forward to the next installment!

(The Faulkner passage is BEAUTIFUL, by the way.)

Posted by: Natalia ('14?) on August 8, 2009

Sweet. Tottaly restored my faith in life. =D I actually reblogged the Faulkner phrase---IN VEDIO FORM!

Posted by: Esme Squalor on August 8, 2009

Appendix A: Places Where I've Heard the Abovelisted Terms

function- completely ubiquitous. It tends to become part of your natural flow of speech after a while.

spacetime separation- huge spike in common usage around the time that the 8.022 class gets to the chapter on Special Relativity.

gaussian- Donald Guy and I toss this word around a lot, it seems. I've heard others use it casually, but not in many memorable instances.

vacuously true- I've only ever heard this said by math majors in Random Hall, which is like a third of Random Hall.

null set- general usage is fairly common, esp. after you've friended the null set on Facebook.

nonlinear response- mostly a spillover from diff. eq. problem sets. The term is used around 298402 times on average per 18.03 lecture, so it sort of merges into your natural way of describing things if you're taking the class.

isotropic- Me and Shawn apparently. We both took 8.223 this year, which introduces the term on the second or third page of the textbook. Isotropy is a jackpot word in the sense that if something is isotropic in 8.223, it means that it's probably going to be the easiest question on the problem set.

unstructural- used everywhere, esp. around East Campus.

entropically favorable- Everyone jokes about entropy at MIT the way normal people joke about chickens and street-crossing, but I feel like I'm the only one who uses this regularly.

discretization- Alright, so I think this is another one of mine-and-nobody-else's words, but I could be misremembering.

@ Tarun:

Good call, Taylor approximations also translate nicely into lingo.

Posted by: Yan on August 8, 2009

Light in August is the easiest Faulkner book. For a mind-warping literary passage try Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor, especially near the last part with Van Veen's treatise on Space and Time. It will melt your face. As does yrstruly's street patois in Infinite Jest, DFW to the esoterica, David Foster Wallace to the newbies.

Posted by: John Galt on August 8, 2009

@ John Galt:

Ada, or Ardor and Infinite Jest have been on my reading list since forever ago, which is a long time. The hitch is that they're both longer than my summer vacation.

Posted by: Yan on August 8, 2009

The set of all the Faulkner books that I've read is the null set; it is vacuously true that I will read Faulkner's works at MIT.

Posted by: José P. '13 on August 8, 2009


Ada, or Ardor is a challenging book in any respect, it really showcases Nabokov as a stylist. The plot doesn't really develop much as Lolita, nor does it really give an insight into the characters that I would of wanted, especially given the subject matter at hand, aka incest. I could expand and pontificate for a while on Ada, or Ardor, but I would recommend it, but definitely read Infinite Jest first. Which brings me to Infinite Jest: Read it. Buy it. Look at if you can't find time to read it. Just have it in your possession at all times, then you will get it read. I read both books this summer and a few others, so that should tell you that Infinite Jest isn't really as long as all the whiners make it out to be, though it is fairly challenging and employs DFW esoteric Vocabulary and his asinine acronyms. It took me about two and 1/2 weeks, some report almost a month, and I'm sure there are the unmotivated kind out there that spend months or "null sets" in regard to completion. I almost gave up on it once or twice--he goes on about some tennis matches forever, the best parts make you stay in for the long haul, however. When he's on he's on. Be warned: this book works your mind, just as the foreword states, oft numerous times.

Posted by: John Galt on August 8, 2009

@ John Galt:

I worked through about 100 pages of Infinite Jest before the MIT library wrenched its spine out of my hands. I swear, someone keeps placing holds on every one of DFW's books as soon as I check them out. I hope it's not you.

Posted by: Yan on August 8, 2009


Sadly I attend UVA and try to live a cognitive self-existence.

Posted by: John Galt on August 9, 2009

spacial -> spatial?

Posted by: anon on August 9, 2009

apparently, they're variants
but via google, spacial refers to three dimensions, and spatial two, in which case your spelling makes more sense
i never heard of this before o.o

Posted by: anon on August 9, 2009

This was hilarious. Thanks for making me laugh (:

Isotropic is probably the one I most frequently use... and I know at least one other person who does too. Said other person took 8.223 and is not named Shawn. I picked it up from mineralogy and geophysics... oh, and then of course there's WMAP.

P.S. You should add quantized and simply connected.

Posted by: Reena on August 9, 2009


I totally use the word vacuous and, though I live at Random, I am not a math major. I have also read/ heard people complaining about how other people use the word vacuous in order to dismiss a statement even when it is completely legitimate. I think that a word is legitimately widespread when you have groups of people trying to sensor it.

Also- it put forth local maxima/minima for your consideration. ie. "The movie was pretty good, but it was only a local maximum as far as sci-fi goes. Star Trek is better."

Posted by: Lyla '11 on August 9, 2009

One of the most hilarious post
and also one of the best
Also does anyone know when is the application gng 2 be available

Posted by: Divyansh on August 9, 2009

That was possibly the best voice mail recording message I've ever met. My thanks - I've borrowed it.


Posted by: Elias on August 9, 2009

@ Divyansh:

I suspect the app. is going to come out in early Sept. Just a guess. Feel free to ignore it.

@ Lyla:

Local max/min has potential. (There's a pun that I could make here, but I'll skip it.)

@ Elias:

You're welcome. Maybe I should start copyrighting answering machine messages and live off the royalties. Yep, perfect use of an MIT education.

Posted by: Yan on August 9, 2009

Hopefully, Person B didn't pass the salt. Otherwise Person A would have suffer from high blood pressure due to overflow.

Thanks Yan. No yummy food pics this time :(

Posted by: Armin on August 10, 2009

i want to join MIT college. please help me. thanks

Posted by: gabriel mendy on August 10, 2009

I've borrowed the phone message as well. smile

Posted by: anon on August 10, 2009


I've got the market cornered on meaningless complaints about lack of delicious food pics! T.T

But like her google search one, this entry was epic enough to make up for it!

Posted by: NathanArce on August 10, 2009


I wasn't complaining really.
I am mostly interested in Yan's photography among the bloggers. Though this guide doesn't have photos taken by her camera at all, that even motivated me to read it more carefully.

So, good job.

Posted by: Armin on August 11, 2009

the phone settings surely made my day!!

Posted by: WangWei on August 11, 2009

Uhm, my complaints are always just as kidding as yours was, Armin >.> Mostly :3

Posted by: NathanArce on August 11, 2009

Just an observation that a synonym for 'Gaussian distribution' is 'Normal distribution' which could partly 'explain' why it is "A nimble adjective for describing things that look exactly as they should."

I doubt I could potentially scoop you on the second edition of the post, so here are few more...

1. (Non-)trivial:
Ex: Obtaining free food everyday is a rather non-trivial task for an undergrad.

2. Convergent/Divergent:
Ex: Having two finals within a single day lead to a near divergent panic among course-6'ers.

3. Out of/In equilibrium:
Ex1: Being a nerd could throw you out of equilibrium with the rest of the society.

Ex2: Till Lilia equilibrated within MIT community, her first semester had already passed-by.

4. Canonical:
ex: I am not your canonical nerd, I work hard and party hard.

Posted by: Tarun on August 11, 2009

Uhm, a literature buff is more likely to use canonical in that way than a tech nerd (despite how often I like to argue canon about video game and manga universes), in my opinion.

Posted by: NathanArce on August 12, 2009

@ Tarun:

I feel like non-trivial would be almost a trivial inclusion on the list. Although it is a massively useful word, both for faculty and students.

Also, I nearly included "canonical" on the original list. It's another 8.223 keyword- canonical transformations are supposed to make you really happy.

Posted by: Yan on August 12, 2009

This was very funny to read! I hope they don't really speak like that when I come for campus visit wink

Posted by: Priscilla on August 12, 2009

Mostly agree with the triviality of 'non-trivial'. Though it could still garner awkward silence while talking to (for example) an employee at a grocery store.

'Worldline' and 'Past/future Light Cone' are also rather common words, at least in my near vicinity.

Posted by: Tarun on August 12, 2009

Wow, they really do use that...? Out of all words mentioned so far, canonical is something I don't think I could ever get used to mentioning outside of where I have originally heard it (storyline discussions, in this case) =.="

Posted by: NathanArce on August 13, 2009

I must say, I love your blogs Yan! You are very amazing! I am still a junior in high school, and have been deciding where to attend. Before I would not have really considered MIT, but now I am thinking about applying because of your blogs! Though I have a question: does MIT have a courses that can help me into the medical field, or should I think of another school?
I am definitely going to start using these phrases now! Thank you!

Posted by: Micah on August 13, 2009

@ Micah:

Thanks! Course 7 (biology), Course 9 (brain and cognitive science), and Course 20 (biological engineering) are good bets for getting into med school. MIT has robust, non-trivial research opportunities for undergrads in all three.

Posted by: Yan on August 13, 2009

hahaha nice. i have a habit of just calling identical objects isomorphic structures in conversation but isotrophic is probably better for architectural purposes.

Posted by: rachel'12 on August 13, 2009

Thank you Yan! Keep on updating, and I shall definitely keep on reading!

Posted by: Micah on August 14, 2009

Falling in love with this entry was entropically favourable!

Posted by: Cathy on August 16, 2009

sounds intriguing to me!such a lovely, you know, entry really inspired me and I WANT TO GO TO MIT MORE THAN EVER!(:

Posted by: Jane F on August 16, 2009

Wasn't expecting a blog like this when I saw it. Nicely presented! BTW, I loved the space-time separation but I usually use space-time continuum.

Posted by: Mehmet '14? on August 16, 2009

Hey, not true about McCormick; my door had a picture of pikachu+a tardigrade on it :0)

Posted by: 0 on August 17, 2009

It's been one of my dreams to get hoplessly lost in the isotropic halls of a new school...
Hope that happens when I visit!
(Yes, I know. I'm weird.)

Posted by: Rowen('14?) on August 17, 2009

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