Daily Idioms
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: Kudos

Debbie Chachra (Debcha, on Twitter) is a material scientist and associate professor at the 10-year-old Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. She has written a few times for HiLobrow. Also, for the past year she has owned and operated an oddly addictive tumblr called “Daily Idioms, Annotated.”

Here, for example, is the September 26 entry, in its entirety: “howdah pistol, lithopanspermia, sonic maturation, heart tap, chaos terrain, self-flaying skin.” Here is the Oct. 1 entry: “skin name, transient electronics, pharyngeal jaw, gota fría, apophallation, shearing layers.” Each word or phrase is linked to a webpage. “Suicide door” takes you here. “Howdah pistol” takes you here. Click here to see the tumblr’s archive.

Debcha will be in New York this month to talk about her Daily Idioms project at a conference. I asked her a few questions, via email last week, for the Boston Globe Ideas blog, Brainiac.


What is Daily Idioms about?

CHACHRA: On one level, Daily Idioms is just about the incongruous beauty of language. Many of the idioms are short phrases where there’s some dissonance between the words (“entangled diamonds”), or there’s some interesting clue to the meaning buried in the word (“apophallation”), or they’re just weird-sounding (“prampting”). My favorites are the ones where the words sound like something completely different from what they are (like “sarcastic fringehead,” which is actually a fish).

BRAINIAC: You say “on one level” — so what’s the project about on another level?

CHACHRA: After I started linking to sources and hearing back from readers, I realized that Daily Idioms is mostly about exposing people to entirely new concepts and ideas. The fundamental affordance of the Internet is these lateral moves. If you read a textbook, it moves you straight through the material, getting deeper and more complicated as you go. But if you’re learning about something on the Internet, it’s easy to follow links and go sideways into different areas. The Daily Idioms are just the sideways links.

BRAINIAC: So where do you find these curiosities?

CHACHRA: A few of them are sent to me by readers, but most of them I just come across in my daily life or online reading. My professional background is weirdly multidisciplinary — engineering, science, and education; physics, biology, design; and a bunch more. So what I’m exposed to reflects both what I know about and what I’m interested in knowing about. I’ve come to think that all human knowledge is fractal — for any topic, the edges go on (nearly) forever. We spend most of our working lives near the center, but most of the Daily Idioms are about dropping people out at the weird fringes.

Categories: Kudos - Tags: , , ,


Joshua Glenn is an author, publisher, and semiotic analyst. He is co-author (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) of THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, co-editor of the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and co-author (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) of the family activities guide UNBORED and three forthcoming spinoffs, including UNBORED Games. He is editor of HILOBROW and publisher of the Radium Age science fiction imprint HiLoBooks. Also: Glenn manages a secretive online community known as the Hermenautic Circle; he is founding editor of the e-book club Save the Adventure; and he's a frequent co-host of Boing Boing's podcast GWEEK. In the ’00s, Glenn was an editor, columnist, and blogger for the Boston Globe's IDEAS section, he co-founded the international semiotics website SEMIONAUT, and contributed to CABINET, SLATE, and elsewhere. In the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT, worked as a dotcom and magazine editor, and contributed to THE BAFFLER, FEED, and elsewhere. His publishing company is King Mixer, LLC; and his semiotic analysis consultancy is Semiovox LLC. He lives in Boston with his wife and children.