Pop Culture dictionary

Occam’s razor

or Ockham's razor [ok-uh mz rey-zer]

What does Occam's razor mean?

Occam’s razor is a philosophical principle that states the simplest explanation is usually the best one.

Related words

Godwin’s law, Murphy's Law, Poe’s Law

Where does Occam’s razor come from?

Occam's razor

Occam’s razor is grounded in the idea of parsimony—being thrifty with your resources. Just as we all strive to pinch our pennies, Occam’s razor teaches us that we should hold off on our hypotheticals.

The phrase Occam’s razor is recorded in 1852 by the Scottish metaphysician Sir William Hamilton. Hamilton credited William of Ockham, a 14th-century English monk and philosopher, with formulating his namesake, Occam’s razor: “More things should not be used than are necessary.” In other words, when trying to make sense of some phenomenon (especially between two competing alternatives), it’s best to avoid the more elaborate explanation—shave it off, like a razor.

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, says Occam’s razor, it’s probably a duck. Not a goose disguised as a duck that infiltrated the flock. Sure, that hypothetical exists. We can’t 100% rule out that it didn’t happen. But c’mon. It’s a duck.

Many folks first encounter Occam’s razor in school when learning about the scientific method and learning about how to create testable and falsifiable hypotheses. Occam’s razor compels us to form the simplest hypothesis that is consistent with the data available.

The principle is also commonly applied in modes of reasoning in philosophy, math, and religion—and, of course, The Simpsons in 1994, when Lisa cites Occam’s razor to dismiss some outlandish hypotheticals.

Some critics of Occam’s razor, however, state that the principle is an oversimplification of the complexities of real life and often rules out creative thinking.

Examples of Occam’s razor

Occam's razor is cool but it doesn't have Fusion Proglide power with flexball action for that close shave that makes the hoes go wild son
@Teknikally_Jed, June, 2014
With Occam’s Razor inspiring our designs, we can achieve views that are elegant in their simplicity and are all about user speed and efficiency. Something Alexa and her virtual assistance sisters can well appreciate and strive to deliver.
Deb Miller, CMSWire, June, 2018
Going through recent cases on claim construction in preparing a revision of Chisum, Patent Law Digest. Difference between Phillips standard and Broadest Reasonable Interpretation: fuzzy. So, I'm now a fan of PTO proposal to abolish latter for IPRs. Occam's Razor.
@ChisumOnPatents, June, 2018

Who uses Occam’s razor?

Outside of discussions in science and logic, some people casually cite Occam’s razor as a handy rule of thumb to make sense of life and all its messes.

Others apply it more sharply to politics, especially to bust conspiratorial thinking.


Thanks to its name, Occam’s razor invites plenty of puns:

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of Occam’s razor like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of Occam’s razor that will help our users expand their word mastery.