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Some years ago in a computer science department I heard the term “cocktail knowledge” to refer to the knowledge that someone has on a subject when they can name techniques, results, and people but they don't have a very deep understanding into what they talk about, even less a clue about how to implement it themselves. Today I tried to find that meaning for “cocktail knowledge” online and I couldn't find a reference to this term. Has anybody heard this term before? or did I just invent a new term?

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It's certainly an interesting term, although personally I don't think I've heard it used before - and difficult to search for amidst the cocktail mixing sites. I'm not sure you can lay claim to inventing the term, but it should be safe to use in context "He only has cocktail knowledge about that - anything in depth will baffle him." – Hannele Apr 10 '13 at 15:45
Related terms include 'armchair scholar' and 'buzzword compliant' – Hannele Apr 10 '13 at 15:49
Here's although many students gain what I call a "cocktail" knowledge of literature, they by and large remain untouched by the experience from 1999, so it has at least been used before. But I think it has no real currency, mainly because it's a really bad metaphor. Does it allude to the cocktail party bluffer (who knows a few buzz-words, but is in general totally ignorant)? Or cocktail = disorganised mishmash? Or carefully balanced mix (as in a cocktail drink)? No-one could say. – FumbleFingers Apr 10 '13 at 16:05
...at least with cocktail party knowledge the intended meaning is obvious. As that link shows, it's been used many times before - but even if they'd never come across it, most people would understand it on first hearing. – FumbleFingers Apr 10 '13 at 16:09
Thanks for your replies! I see the term may have come from cocktail party knowledge, that fits with the type of person I had seen that term used with – martinako Apr 10 '13 at 17:09
up vote 10 down vote accepted

One could speak of having cocktail party knowledge of a subject— a superficial recollection of some terminology or figures and high-level concepts that would enable one to participate in a conversation on the subject socially (as at a cocktail party), but not knowledge that could be discussed in an academic setting or applied in a professional one.

I would not call it a well-established idiom, but simply a colorful expression.

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It's what you spout after a couple of Three Wise Mens. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 10 '13 at 22:15
Songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen calls it "Johnny Walker wisdom." That kind of sums it up for me. – rhetorician Apr 11 '13 at 1:03

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