Glossary

Glossary of terms

in order of appearance in the script

by Gabriela Schneider

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (epigraph quote): Tocqueville was a 19th century French historian. Democracy in America (published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840) is one of his most famous works; it is also considered one of the foundational texts of political science and sociology.

Modesto: A city in California’s central valley, about 90 miles east of San Francisco. County seat of Stanislaus County.

Stockton: A city in California’s central valley, county seat of San Joaquin County. Stockton was disproportionately affected by the subprime mortgage crisis, and received nationwide attention in 2012 when it became the largest U.S. city in history to file for bankruptcy (surpassed in 2013 by Detroit).

I-80: Part of the Interstate Highway system, Interstate 80 runs from San Francisco to Teaneck, New Jersey. It largely follows the route of the First Transcontinental Railroad, and several sections also correspond to routes taken by pioneers (including parts of the Oregon Trail and the California Trail).


“—the rain just starting to hit the ground, so it’s all slick, the roads — that’s the worst time to drive…”: Roads tend to be especially slippery at the beginning of a storm because oils that have leaked from cars and soaked into the asphalt start to loosen but have not yet washed away.

“like a wild dog, the kind that eat people, like a kai-yote”: Coyote attacks on humans are rare (and rarely fatal), although they are becoming more frequent in California as coyotes near suburban areas become habituated to humans.

bankruptcy: The legal status of a person, business, or other entity that cannot pay debts owed to creditors. By declaring bankruptcy, the debtor can have their debts discharged (eliminated). In the United States, bankruptcy is defined in federal (not state) law, and the process of filing for bankruptcy goes through the United States Bankruptcy Courts.

types of bankruptcy: There are six different categories of bankruptcy in US law, distinguished by their chapter numbers in the Bankruptcy Code. Individuals can file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 (liquidation bankruptcy, in which the court sells most of the debtor’s assets) or Chapter 13 (reorganization bankruptcy, in which the court sets up a 3-to-5-year repayment plan).

“you have to tell them you’re going to declare bankruptcy”: When filing for bankruptcy, the debtor must disclose all creditors to the bankruptcy court. The court holds a meeting at which creditors may ask questions about the debtor’s financial situation.

paralegal: A professional who is trained and qualified to do legal work but not licensed to practice law independently. Paralegals usually work for law firms in subordinate positions; a paralegal is to an attorney as a nurse is to a doctor.

identity theft: A form of fraud based on impersonating someone else or using specific identifying information (such as a Social Security number) to profit at another person’s expense. It was first defined in US law in 1998.

Visible Difference Refining Moisture Cream Complex: A real Elizabeth Arden product. One 2.5 ounce jar retails for $55.

fraud: Deliberate deception for the purpose of monetary or personal gain. Legally, fraud is both a criminal and a civil offense, meaning that fraudsters can be prosecuted, sued, or both. The intention to profit (usually financially) is what distinguishes fraud from other forms of dishonesty such as hoaxes.

federal crime: In the United States, most crimes are prosecuted at the state level, but certain crimes are made illegal by federal legislation and are therefore prosecuted under federal criminal law. Examples of federal crimes include tax evasion, bank robbery, and counterfeiting. (Other crimes can also become federal crimes if they involve crossing state lines or are committed on federal land or an Indian reservation.)

“You can walk your ass back to Sacramento if I care”: Sacramento is about 50 miles from Stockton.

grant writing: The process of writing proposals to request government funding or donations for educational, research, and arts institutions.

“then we roll the Saran Wrap around you…”: The body wrap is a real spa treatment that purports to slim, smooth, and “detoxify” the body. Clients have their entire bodies tightly wrapped in “mineral infused” bandages or in plastic wrap and may be left to rest or instructed to exercise. The slimming effect is temporary since it is caused by dehydration and not actual weight loss.

Demonstration of a body wrap spa treatment

electrolytes: Typically refers to the specific salts the body needs to maintain blood pressure and prevent dehydration, including sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Sports drinks are designed to replace electrolytes lost in sweat.

“It’s like the Roman Inquisition every time I come over here”: The Spanish Inquisition was a tribunal set up by the Spanish monarchy to enforce Catholicism in the realm, targeting converts from Judaism and Islam.

“But I’m not out there forging checks and crossing state lines, okay?”: Meesh is using the example of a well-known type of federal crime to make her eBay fraud seem insignificant.

Independence, Missouri: The starting point of three major pioneer routes: the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Santa Fe Trail.


Buffalo chips: Pieces of dried bison dung, which were one of the few reliable sources of fuel for pioneers on the prairie.

“it’s like those competition shows on TV”: Contestants on “Survivor” have to live off the land in a remote location, attempting to outlast each other; however, no one actually dies.

“And they start to get this euphoria really. I mean it’s that, and the consistent lack of nutrients…”: Total starvation can cause a euphoric state, similar to a “runner’s high,” as the body uses endorphins to mask pain.

mortgage: A loan used to buy a house (or other real estate) and paid back in monthly installments, usually over a period of 30 years. Typically, the house is also the collateral, of which the bank will claim ownership if the borrower cannot pay the mortgage.

“The one they did a few years ago, that’s the one that got me”: Homeowners may get second mortgages for various reasons, including refinancing (using a second mortgage to pay off the first mortgage) to consolidate debts or reduce one’s monthly payment. A common form of second mortgage is a home equity line of credit (HELOC), which is typically used for major expenses such as education or medical bills.

“Depends on if it gets harder to declare insolvency. Lots of new laws coming up”: Congress periodically amends the bankruptcy code. The most significant recent changes, in 2005, added stricter rules to determine which type of bankruptcy people qualify for (based on income) and introduced mandatory financial counseling (intended to help people determine whether bankruptcy is necessary and suggest alternative plans when appropriate).

insolvency: Insolvency is the state of being unable to pay one’s debts, or of having more liabilities than assets. When a person (or a corporation or municipality) has a net worth that is a negative number, they are insolvent. Bankruptcy is the legal process designed to deal with insolvency.

Suze Orman: American financial “guru” and host of The Suze Orman Show on CNBC.

minimum payment: The minimum amount that must be paid each month on a credit card or loan. Paying only the minimum costs more in the long run because interest continues to add up if the cardholder carries a balance.

credit rating: Manda is actually referring to her credit score, the analysis of an individual’s creditworthiness (likely ability to pay back loans); a credit rating is the same concept but the term is typically used for corporations and governments.

ledger: An accounting book or document with two columns for debits and credits.

butte: A steep hill with a flat top, narrower than a mesa.


Butte, Montana: A city in southwestern Montana.

oxen: Cattle used as draft animals (rather than for meat), especially castrated males

Shut Up And Sing: A documentary film (directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck) about country music trio The Dixie Chicks, focusing on a period of public backlash after lead singer Natalie Maines said she was ashamed that George W. Bush was from her home state of Texas.

blackball: To vote against admitting someone to a club; by extension, to ostracize someone socially.

driver license renewal in California: Drivers under the age of 70, who have not had their license suspended, are eligible to renew by mail and do not have to repeat the vision exam. Health problems that can affect driving are usually self-reported.

Demolition Derby: A competition in which drivers deliberately ram their vehicles into one another. The last car still running wins.

“Sometimes I do the thing where you send the check but you don’t sign it. That gives you a couple days.”: A check is not valid until the payer signs it. If the recipient assumes the lack of a signature is an oversight, they will send the check back, giving the payer more time to deposit sufficient funds in their account to prevent the check from bouncing.

first-degree burns: The most minor type of burn, affecting only the epidermis (outermost section of the skin). Meesh is probably thinking of third-degree burns, which damage the underlying tissue and are much more serious.

Code X: Emergency services use systems of response codes to tell police, fire departments, and ambulances how to respond to a call. The best-known examples are Code 3 (life-threatening emergency, use lights and sirens) and Code 0 (large scale emergency, all units in area respond Code 3). Code X does not really exist.

Learning curve: A graphical representation of increase in knowledge over time. The faster one is learning, the steeper the curve.

Idealized learning curve graph

“I’m sorry for involving you in my illness”: An important aspect of 12-step programs is making amends to the people one has harmed. Tress may have joined Debtors Anonymous.

Etsy: An online marketplace for handmade and vintage items, often described as “eBay for arts and crafts.”

tequila popper: A fizzy shot containing tequila and lemon-lime soda or seltzer.

Homestead Exemption: Laws designed to prevent debtors from being forced to sell their homes.

“That’s what it’s really about, mom. People coming out here and trying to make a quick buck.” California became a major pioneer destination because of the Gold Rush of 1849.

“They can’t even keep the parks open.”: In 2011, California closed 70 state parks because of the budget deficit.

In 2011, California closed 70 state parks because of the budget deficit.

flipping: The practice of buying real estate in order to quickly resell it for profit.

optimism: The belief that everything is as it should be, or the tendency to interpret events in a positive light and to expect the best outcome in any situation. Often linked to the philosophy of Leibniz, who claimed that “we live in the best of all possible worlds.”

jackal: A small wild canine native to Africa and Asia.

“I’m gonna mark your file and tell my colleagues never to come back here.” “Dominos keeps a file?”: According to a “former delivery guy” quoted on Consumerist.com, “customers who don’t tip are always bumped to the bottom of the delivery list.”

“It’s trespassing.” “Not if no one lives there”: California’s penal code defines trespassing as entering land belonging to another that is “under cultivation or enclosed by fence” or “where signs forbidding trespass are displayed”—so, technically, it is possible to enter someone’s property without legally trespassing.

“cookie-cutter suburbs, sort of half-deserted”: When the recession began, many real estate developers had to abandon construction on planned neighborhoods, leaving so-called “zombie subdivisions.” Many of these developments have residents living alongside empty lots.


“You don’t own it anymore, Mom. The bank owns it”: When a borrower fails to pay back a loan, the lender may take possession of the collateral and usually force it to be sold; this is called foreclosure. In the case of a mortgage, the bank forecloses on the house.