By Dave Simpson, columnist
It’s one of those words that you’d like other people to think you know the meaning of, but which, if someone put a .44 to your head, you’d have to admit that you don’t know what the ding-dong heck it means.
(Ding-dong is an expression which people who know the meaning of heterodox are unlikely to use. I use ding-dong all the time, to add emphasis. And zing. I also used to use the exclamation, “Gnarly, Dude!” until my wife made me stop. I don’t know why.)
Many otherwise smart people are hazy on what heterodox means. I asked my aforementioned wife – who has more advanced degrees than you can shake a stick at, and actually knows what “T-cells” are – and she had to think awhile before coming up with what in Sam Hill heterodox means.
(Sam Hill was a Michigan surveyor in the 1800s who “allegedly used such foul language that his name became a euphemism for swear words,” according to Wikipedia, so it has to be true. Another source says it’s a euphemism for “hell.”)
A political pundit used the word heterodox on TV the other day, and even though I spent many years as a reporter and editor, and am proud to say I’m an “inveterate” reader (chronic, repeated, habitual), I didn’t know heterodox from Hydrox Cookies. (I miss them.)
Turns out – according to the dictionary they made me buy when I was a college freshman – heterodox means “departing from or opposed to the usual beliefs or established doctrines, especially in religion.”
(My wife would be wont to say, “Then why in Sam Hill didn’t you just say opposed to usual beliefs instead of heterodox?” She can be kind of touchy.)
Instead of saying heterodox, a normal person might say “hare-brained notion,” or “cock-and-bull story,” thought up by someone experiencing a “wild hair.” That’s how folks who aren’t pointy-headed intellectuals talk. And heterodoxy, adding the “y,” is apparently the habit of telling cock-and-bull stories to assuage one’s wild hair. Simple as that.
Of course, people on television, who make way more than normal people and have much better hair, have to say things like heterodox because that’s the way beautiful people at cocktail parties talk.
That’s why they also use the word “tranche.” This one wasn’t even in my old college dictionary, so I had to turn to the computer to find a definition.
Turns out tranche, according to something called “Investopedia,” is “a French word meaning ‘slice’ or ‘portion.’”
Normal people like us might be tempted to say, “Well, why in the dickens didn’t you just say ‘slice’ or ‘portion’ then?” (I’m giving Sam Hill a rest here.)
People on the stock channels on TV, and some political reporters, like to slip in the word tranche to imply that they know French, in reference to yet another big slice or portion of money, usually borrowed federal money, that is being moved in installments to wherever, for whatever reason. (Probably to no good.)
You could substitute “boatload,” or another “load” expression I can’t use here, instead of tranche. But then people wouldn’t think you know French. And we can’t have that.
Back during the last administration (I can’t even remember the name of that last president, can you?) the pundits were fixated on the word “dystopian.” You heard it all the time to describe our sorry state. It means “an imagined world or society in which people lead dehumanized, fearful lives.”
(Journalists are a sunny, optimistic bunch, aren’t they?)
The good news is that with our new president, nobody in the press corps is using the word dystopian anymore. (Call me heterodox if you like, but I’m feeling kind of dystopian today.)
Speaking of the press corps, they like to call each other “colleagues.” I never worked at a paper large enough to have colleagues, just “people I work with.” Sad.
Years ago, the word “gravitas” (depth, heft) shot to the top of the charts, and all God’s journalists had to work it into their stories. But they plum wore it out, and you hardly ever hear it anymore.
Maybe heterodox and tranche will go the way of gravitas.
We can only ding-dong hope.
Dave Simpson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org