The Departures Modern Glossary May/June 2012

Bendik Kaltenborn

The terms that define us now.


Of a device, exhibiting technological sophistication and/or the capability of independent action.

Looking at the long list of things that now have the prefix “smart” attached to them—“smart bomb,” “smart-mouth” and especially “smartphone”—it should come as no surprise that this word has an unpleasant etymology. “Smart” stems from the Middle English word smert, an adjective that meant “causing pain,” as anyone who has wrestled with a putatively intelligent device knows all too well.

Super PAC

An organization that supports a political candidate while ostensibly maintaining independence from said candidate.

A blend of a Latinate prefix and an acronym, “super PAC” smacks of money, since the main goal of this kind of organization is to raise unlimited amounts of the stuff. The term “political action committee” dates from 1839 and was abbreviated to “PAC” about 100 years later. “Super PAC,” from the early 1980s, was rarely used until 2010, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for its ascendancy.


To change the operating system of a smartphone, circumventing the security features put in place by the manufacturer.

“Jailbreak,” the act of escaping from prison, is not a terribly old word—its first recorded usage dates back to around 1910—but it certainly predates the computer age. Now it more commonly refers to the hacking of one’s own electronic device, a rather melodramatic application of a word that can also suggest carving your way out of Alcatraz with a spoon before swimming to freedom through shark-infested waters.


Used to convince consumers that a product is made lovingly by hand, not mass-produced by a soulless corporation.

“Artisanal” is part of a subset of words whose meanings broaden through opportunistic promotion, rather than by natural means: It’s now slapped on everything from Tostitos chips to Domino’s pizza. A similar case can be found in “organic”: Once marketers got their claws into it, the meaning broadened to “something that will not poison you immediately (we think).”


A statement that is intended to convey humility but actually serves as an opportunity for self-promotion; used on Twitter.

A recent example of a “humblebrag” may be found in a tweet by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry: “Stopped by my HS to have lunch with my sis. Surprise [sic] they put a banner up for me.” A blended word, “humblebrag” is composed of two dissimilar terms—along the lines of “backfriend” (a secret enemy) and “tragicomedy” (the presidential election season).