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Scary Science Words

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Zurg: Lower it!
Grub: Lower what, Sir?
Zurg: IT! IT! D'oh, you know! The Crystallic Self-perpetuating Breeder Construction Core! And can't you come up with a shorter name for it? Like "Evil Takeover Thingy"?
Grub: In test markets, four out of five victims surveyed were more frightened by big words.
Zurg and a Grub discuss the trope's merits during the former's Alien Invasion, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command

Technobabble can be used for a lot of things: a convenient Hand Wave to make the plot work, a Reverse Polarity to solve a problem, or just set dressing, but there's something inherently intimidating about long, complex words to people that don't know what they mean; to those unfamiliar with it, Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness can be used as a form of Appeal to Authority in its own right after all, the one using those long words must implicitly have some deeper understanding of the subject matter than the layperson simply because they know words the layperson doesn't.

Chemical formulaic names are often the subject of this "Deoxyribonucleic acid" sounds a lot more exotic and scary than simply saying "DNA" but it is far from restricted to chemicals; benign injuries can be made much more uncomfortable just by saying the medical term for what has happened; everyday physics can be made to sound like they belong in a particle accelerator if you let The Professor explain it, and one could argue that one of the reasons Everyone Hates Mathematics is because their math teacher went just a little too far with their explanations of proofs.

This makes scientific sounding terms incredibly useful for performing a Bavarian Fire Drill simply state your business in a verbage that isn't part of the layman's vernacular and they will be hard pressed to disagree with you. For additional social engineering points, end with "Trust Me, I'm an X". Using the full scientific terminology for innocuous things also makes it a lot easier to convince people that Science Is Bad, due to the idea that anything that is "natural" must be safe and good for you, and that all chemicals are "artificial" and therefore inherently bad.note 

Going Critical is a subtrope of this a normal part of operating a nuclear reactor that sounds scary enough to be misused. Compare Calling Me a Logarithm, for when people get angry at something they don't understand, rather than frightened, and compare the Expospeak Gag which might use vernacular like this trope to invoke fright, but ultimately does it for the purpose of a joke and Gesundheit for when someone mistakes unfamiliar words for a sneeze. If someone follows up their fear response with asking what the thing is, it's overlapping with I've Heard of That What Is It?. See also Antidisestablishmentarianism for another joke about long words. Contrast All-Natural Snake Oil and Technical Euphemism.


    open/close all folders 
  • Jennifer Aniston, using her ditz persona from Friends, fronted TV adverts for some sort of shampoo. Halfway through she looks apprehensively to both sides, then turns to the viewer with a look of alarm on her face and exclaims, "Here comes the science!" Sure enough, what follows is an exposition of why this shampoo is the greatest ever, laden with lots of the pseudo-scientific jargon and long names that sound as if they are real chemicals, that you get in cosmetics adverts.

    Anime and Manga 
  • During the School Festival arc in Asteroid in Love, Ao, who's always has a problem of Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness when explaining science, explains to a toddler that parts of the solar system model the Earth Sciences Club made for the festival represents the "asteroid belt", "circumstellar habitable zone", and "Edgeworth-Kuiper belt". The toddler goes Blank White Eyes and sobs in response.
  • In Yuyushiki, when Ditzy Genius Yuzuko found out water can be called "oxidane," she made up lines like "pour oxidane on dumplings, then cover," in which both Yui and Yukari found to be scarier than it should be.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 50/50 (2011): When Adam goes to his first chemo treatment, he starts bonding with some other patients. When he tells them his cancer (Schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma) one of them jokes that the more syllables, the worse it is.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: McCoy bluffs getting Gillian past an orderly into the hospital by claiming she's suffering from "acute post-prandial upper-abdominal distension". Afterwards, when asked about by Kirk, he reveals it to mean "cramps."

  • In Catfishing on CatNet, the Clowder joke about the threat posed by "dihydrogen monoxide" (it's in the water supply, people!note ). Later, Steph needs to keep the villain (her father) talking, so she asks what he plans to do about all the hydrogen monoxide in the water once he's taken over the world. It works.
  • In Horrible Science:
    • In one of the books, a woman tells her son that he has a "contusion" near his "gluteus maximus". The boy nervously asks if it's serious and she replies, "Not really— it just means you have a bruise on your bum."
    • Another book (Measly Medicine) has a medieval medical treatise recommend the doctor should always speak of obstruction, as the patient won't know what it means, but it sounds serious.
  • Interesting Times: Saveloy (a geography teacher) mentions drumlins to Rincewind, who assumes it's something dangerous. In fact, they're just hills left behind by glaciers.
  • Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined: Beau deals with the embarrassment of fainting at the sight of blood by memorising medical terms to frighten people with. However, he discovers that Edythe is more amused than impressed with terms like "weak vasovagal system."
  • In the Ramona Quimby book "Ramona Forever", the final chapter has a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead to this trope. First of all, the doctors don't allow Ramona to go into Mrs. Quimby's room to see her newborn sister Roberta since "children under twelve might have contagious diseases". This turns Ramona into a temporary hypochondriac and she explains the situation to a doctor, who gives her a checkup and finds nothing wrong with her but, because she mentioned Roberta, he mistakes her unhappiness for Infant Sibling Jealousy. Thus, he jokingly diagnoses her with "sibling-itis", which only makes Ramona even more nervous because she thought "itis" sounded clinical.
  • In The Trumpet of the Swan, Louis's dad injures his wing and is told the wound is "superficial". He thinks "superficial" means "serious".

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 2 episode "Melinda" features flashbacks to May's transformation into "the Cavalry". While May goes into a building to deal with a situation, Coulson keeps people away with this trope. He's seen debating whether to claim there's been a nuclear or biological weapons release, deciding on biological because "biological always works."
    Commander: Did you say biological?
    Coulson: [smiles] Yes, I did.
  • Blackadder takes the Christmas special to a sci fi ride, with Edmund going through a travel in time, and seeing both the similarities and the differences among his ancestors and his descendants with one of the biggest similarities being the threat of execution which in the futuristic setting leaves a lot of nasty things to the imagination thanks the Husbandoid of Queen Asphyxia threatening Admiral Blackadder with the Cultivation Chamber.
  • Played for drama in Designing Women when Julia Sugarbaker goes to confront an incompetent doctor after his bad advice and subsequent dressing down of Charlene Frazier over wanting a second opinion nearly caused Charlene to ignore a potentially malignant lump on her breast. Julia calls the man out on using his assumed authority and medical jargon to intimidate his patients into blindly trusting him while assuming none of the risk himself, a practice that already cost another friend of Julia's her life via breast cancer. When the Doctor attempts to justify his "wait and see" advice with yet more jargon, Ms. Sugarbaker informs him that she grew up in a medical family and such terms hold no fear for her, but she has a few of her own for him, such as "medical malpractice lawsuit."
  • Parks and Recreation: Exploited in "Fluoride". Leslie is leading a campaign to put fluoride in the town's drinking water to improve dental hygiene. However, Councilman Jeremy Jam takes advantage of the fact that the majority of citizens of Pawnee are ignorant and suspicious people who have no idea what fluoride is, using blatant fearmongering to turn against the idea of putting chemicals in their drinking water (even going as far as declaring that Hitler used chemicals). Leslie later turns the tables on him ruining his chances of instead replacing drinking water with "Drink-ems" a Sweetums high sugar solution (and thus costing him the massive payout he would have gotten for getting them the contract), by getting Tom to describe it in purely chemical terms (and then convincing them to include fluoride by letting Tom rebrand it so that doesn't mention any science).
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
    • In the episode "Genesis", Reg Barclay the neurotic engineer thinks that he's got a terminal disease when he actually has the flu. He freaks out when Dr. Crusher tells him that his "K three cells" and "electrophoretic activity" are abnormal because he doesn't know what those words mean.
      Reg Barclay: "Electrophoretic activity? Is it serious?"
    • In the episode "Violations", Troi and Riker go into comas shortly after some telepathic aliens visit. Dr. Crusher brings Keiko, whose mind was voluntarily read by the aliens, to Sickbay for a checkup and tells her that there is no indication of "electropathic residue". Keiko nervously asks, "Is that good?". Crusher says that it is; the residue was found in the coma victims, so since Keiko has none, she's fine.
  • Yes, Minister: This causes a massive problem for Jim Haker in "The Greasy Pole". He is put in charge of approving the plan for a factory to produce Metadioxin which would greatly revamp the British chemical industry. Unfortunately whilst perfectly safe, the mere fact the substances name is similar to infamous toxic Dioxin compound causes massive public concern, with Jim fearing the tabloids exploiting the publics ignorance to accuse him of poisoning children if he goes ahead, and the more respectable papers to lambaste him for ruining such a good business opportunity if he doesn't. Attempts to reassure even his fellow committee members go nowhere, as despite having the independent report assuring its "a completely inert compound", none of them (not even Sir Humphrey) know enough about chemistry to understand it and instead panic over the meaning of the technical terms.
  • A two-part episode of The Golden Girls, "Sick and Tired," features an inversion of this trope. Dorothy comes down with a strange illness that leaves her exhausted for months, and after several (all male) doctors dismiss her concerns as "just getting old," a more compassionate one correctly diagnoses her with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. While discussing her treatment with the other girls, Dorothy remarks that the name "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome" isn't scary enough, as it simply makes the sufferer sound tired (in actuality, CFS can leave people too drained to speak or take care of basic hygiene). As the Other Wiki demonstrates, the more scientific (and scarier) sounding name for CFS is myalgic encephalomyelitis.


  • Songdrops:
    • A variation in "The Long Word Song", where the main character screams upon hearing the word "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis", not because they think it sounds serious, but because they're afraid of long words.
    • Enforced in "The Dihydrogen Monoxide Song", which attempts to make water sound scary by referring to it by its scientific name (dihydrogen monoxide) and pointing out facts like how it corrodes some tools and can kill you if inhaled.

    Web Animation 
  • Red vs. Blue: In the opening of season 15, Dylan bluffs herself and her cameraman into a restricted zone by using a lot of made-up, vaguely military-sounding jargon and acronyms, which intimidates the guard into letting them through.
    Dylan: Follow my lead and when in doubt use a confusing acronym. Military types love acronyms.
    Guard: Stop right there, please! Gonna have to ask you to turn around and go back from where you came! This is a restricted military AO.
    Dylan: At ease, soldier! We're BADDAD: Bomb Action Detection Decision and Defusion.
    Guard: Bomb squad? You guys just left.
    Dylan: That was RAR, Rapid Action Response. We're FIAT, Forensic Identification Analytic Tech. I'm Corporal Regina and this is Lance Corporal DuCroix.
    Guard: Uh, stand by. I'm going to have to run this up the chain!
    Dylan: No time! We have a live LOLRPG upstairs with a BPRD of over 5000!
    Guard: God, that's a lot.
    Dylan: We're expecting an LSAT RTAA in the next 8 minutes!
    Guard: [nervous] Okay, that sounds pretty big.
    Dylan: [grave] It's a Class 1 FUBARFOSHO.
    [As the guard lets them through]
    Guard: [to himself] Over 5000, jeez.

    Web Comics 
  • xkcd made a chart of how scary certain technical terms sound compared to how scary the phenomena they describe actually are.

    Web Original 
  • In the New Zealand online school Te Kura, it deconstructs this trope by saying that a lot of people are afraid of chemistry terms, but that even something as simple as water can be referred to as "hydric acid".note 

    Western Animation 
  • Enforced in the Animaniacs song "Be Careful What You Eat". It's meant to make kids beware of what they're eating and Scare 'Em Straight by reading out the ingredients with long words such as "bisulphate". In reality, not all of these ingredients are bad for you— in fact, some, such as "beta carotene" and "lactic acid", are good for you.
  • Arthur:
    • "Jenna's Bedtime Blues" has someone in a Nightmare Sequence note that "nocturnal enuresis" sounds like a terrible disease. (Actually, it just means wetting the bed).
    • "To Eat or Not to Eat" delivers the message "Be wary of artificial ingredients in your food" by way of a newly released candy bar whose ingredients include such things as "Tri-Enzomated Zorn Jelly" (which, judging from its effects, appears to be a euphemism for crystal meth) and other fictional chemicals which make sparkles come out of one's mouth.
  • Discussed Trope in Buzz Lightyear of Star Command:
  • In the Doc McStuffins episode "Doctoring the Doc", Doc tells Chilly he has "stuffed-belly-itis". He freaks out and nervously asks what that means, but she says it just means his belly is full of stuffing.
  • Martha Speaks sometimes employs this trope due to its habit of defining things:
    • In the episode "Martha in Charge", Mariella hopes Helen "recuperates" from her laryngitis. Martha is scared at the prospect and thinks recuperate means to throw up (possibly confusing it with regurgitate.)
    • In "Verb Dog, When Action Calls", Ronald complains about Martha "ambulating" all over the place and it's unknown what Helen thinks that means, but she seems disgusted and asks if Martha is OK. Actually, "ambulate" is just a rare English verb meaning "to walk".
  • In the cartoon version of Milly, Molly, one episode, titled "Investigate", shows a feral rabbit eating Aunt Maude's lettuce. Mr. Oddbottom, the Comically Serious town planner, takes the rabbit away to a place called "Enclosure 211-B". The girls, due to the enclosure's academic-sounding name, think it's a place where the rabbit will be experimented on, put down or similar, but it turns out to just be a place where it can live in captivity.
  • In Rugrats: In "No More Cookies", Angelica becomes unwell after eating too many cookies. The doctor diagnoses her with "acute dyspeptic gastritis", which scares her father Drew. The doctor explains that it only means a tummyache.note 
  • In Spongebob Squarepants, the episode "Funny Pants", Sandy explains to Spongebob the biology of how laughter works, using technical words. He says it sounds painful and she replies that "science makes everything sound painful".

    Real Life 
  • The Dihydrogen Monoxide hoax, already seen in several of the examples on this page, tells us that this is very much Truth in Television. It's essentially an Expospeak Gag that centers around convincing people that "dihydrogen monoxide" should be banned because it, amongst a slew of other things, contributes to such things as greenhouse effects, acid rain, and corrosion, and is found in tumors. Thankfully, it doesn't take too long for someone (be it the prankster or some third party) to reveal that dihydrogen monoxide is the most commonly used chemical name for H2O. In other words, the entire joke is about convincing people to put a ban on water, because it was given a scary name. This is just as often used to prove a point about the need for scientific literacy as it is to make political opponents sound stupid. This works because the average person usually hears "monoxide" in relationship to carbon monoxide, which is toxic and a common byproduct of pollution. Without an understanding of chemical nomenclature, they end up thinking this other kind of monoxide has to be just as bad.
  • A (satirical) campaign to end women's suffrage gathered quite a few signatures because people confused "suffrage" (the right to vote) for "suffering".
  • The popular rhetoric "If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it!" is a quote from Michael Pollan, the author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto". In theory, this is meant to warn consumers against eating highly-processed foods and provide guidelines to identify these products to combat growing health epidemics. In practice, it only served to promote this trope and cause a fear of chemicals of any kind, despite the fact that perfectly sound ingredients in even the most healthy foods can read like impossible tongue twisters for the unknowledgeable. And also, everything is made of chemicals, even "natural" products. For example, here's what is in your average non-GM banana. It was quickly phased out as something actually taught in public school health classes and educational programming as a result of this, but it still remains as a common guideline for how to improve one's diet.
  • MRIs are an application of the technology of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) to medical imaging, and were thus originally called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging. However, patients refused to sign up for it just because it had the word nuclear in it, despite it being not only perfectly safe but used to partially phase out alternatives like CAT scans that really do produce (though in small enough amounts to not be a big deal) the dangerous kind of radiation.
  • This is one of the reason anti-vaxxers believe vaccines are dangerous, as most if not all compounds and chemicals like "mercury" (actually thimerosal, a compound that is to mercury what table salt is to chlorine) or "formaldehyde" (which occurs naturally in the human body, and in much higher concentrations than in the vaccine) sound scary to the uneducated ear. You'll even see the word "chemicals" thrown around as a scare word. This has caused a meme where people will list off a bunch of scary-sounding chemicals claiming them to be vaccine ingredients, let people panic for a bit, and then reveal that list that contained things like cyanide, formaldehyde, phlorizin, and manganese, among others, was actually the chemical makeup of an apple.
  • Kids are known to freak out when they learn that yogurt contains probiotics, because they don't really know the definition of "bacteria" beyond "a type of germ", and they're taught germs are bad. As such, some teachers define probiotics as "good bacteria".


Video Example(s):


Dylan bluffs

Dylan bluffs her way past an armed guard by claiming to be bomb squad, spouting off a bunch of jargony-sounding acronyms, and creating a sense of urgency.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / BavarianFireDrill

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