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The ‘Survivor’ Dictionary

Blindsides, Probstism, and Pagonging, oh my: In the past 20 years, the reality competition has forged a language of its own

Adam Villacin

With Survivor: Winners at War coming to an end and the series’ 20th anniversary (20th!) just weeks away, there’s no better time than now to honor the revolutionary reality TV competition. Welcome to Survivor Week, a celebration of the show’s best moments and characters.

Contrary to what you might think, the first person to use the word “alliance” on Survivor wasn’t Richard Hatch. In Episode 3 of Borneo, Kelly Wiglesworth coined the idea (while also calling on one of reality TV’s most iconic phrases). “I don’t think anybody’s out here to make friends,” she said. “I’m not out here to make friends. People that you’re forming alliances with now, and the people that you’re getting along with now are people that are going to have to turn around and vote you, but somebody’s gotta go.” And with that one astute observation, Survivor took on a life of its own. What for a brief moment was a game primarily about surviving the elements on a desolate island—in which players messily voted out others for straightforward reasons like weakness in challenges and annoying personalities—became a game of strategy, trust, and—yeah—alliances. Survivor as we know it was born.

In the 20 years since, “alliances” have become as much a part of Survivor as tiki torches and Jeff’s blue shirts. And in that time, too, hundreds of players—and fans—have had the chance to add to the vocabulary of the game just as Wiglesworth did in 2000. If you’re not a superfan of the show, a modern season’s slang and allusions can be overwhelming. That’s why we’re here with the Survivor dictionary—a one-stop guide to the language of Survivor.

advantage-geddon (n.) — A tribal council in Game Changers, when Cirie Fields went home at the Final Six despite there being zero votes against her. All five of Cirie’s tribemates were immune (via an immunity necklace, a legacy advantage, and three hidden immunity idols, respectively), and so she left the game essentially by default. This moment has become symbolic of the proliferation of advantages and twists on recent seasons.

all women’s alliance (n.) — Something a male member of the tribe will worry about any time a group of women are strategizing, or perhaps merely conversing.

alliance (n.) — Essentially any group of people working together; the foundational building block to any player’s game.

auction (n.) — An occasional reward challenge when contestants bid money for food and other items. Hasn’t been seen since 2014 since too many players skip the food items to bid on advantages.

bequeath (v.) — The terminology used by host Jeff Probst for when a player gives a fire token to another player, for some reason.

big moves (n.) — What players believe they need to make in order to win respect in the game and gain jury votes at the final tribal council. Also what a player will say they are doing while making a dumb move.

biggest blowout in Survivor history (n.) — What Jeff Probst says about any challenge that is a blowout.

biggest comeback in Survivor history (n.) — What Jeff Probst says about any challenge that features a comeback.

bitter jury (n.) — A group of jury voters who despise at least one of the players who makes the final tribal council. Featured prominently in All-Stars, Gabon, Fiji, Kaôh Rōng, and, well, just about every season.

blindside (n.) — In early seasons, a special vote out in which the player being booted from the game was kept completely in the dark. Nowadays, every vote out is a blindside.

buddy system (n.) — A strategy used by Rob Mariano in which players in an alliance stick with each other for an entire day to prevent anyone strategizing with the other side of the tribe. This works only on newbies or fools.

buff (n.) — A magic piece of cloth that can be worn as literally any article of clothing.

challenge beast (n.) — A player who is exceptional at challenges, particularly individual ones. (Similar to but not the same as physical threat).

Day 39 (n.) — The final day of nearly every season. Seasons are 39 days long because of the show’s original filming schedule—that length has become tradition in years since.

edgic (n.) — A portmanteau of “edit” and “logic,” this is the fan practice of closely investigating how the show is edited in order to figure out the winner of the season well ahead of the finale. It’s perfect for mega Survivor nerds (hello!) who want to know what will happen but are too cowardly to look up spoilers. A love of spreadsheets also helps. Results are mixed.

edit (n.) — What ends up on TV screens, which is different from what actually happens on the island.

Exile Island (n.) — A twist appearing in many seasons in which players must choose a person to go into exile, usually after a reward challenge. Often there is an immunity idol here.

Extinction Island (n.) — A twist in two seasons in which cast members who were voted out go to a desolate island, where they await a chance to come back into the game. Basically Redemption Island on steroids.

fake idol (n.) — Something made to look like an immunity idol, but that actually holds no power. Can be a stick:

Fiji (n.) — Where every season has taken place since 2016. With the location no longer changing, recent seasons have used increasingly wacky themes to differentiate from one another.

Final Three, the (n.) — The final tribal council in most seasons.

Final Two, the (n.) — The final tribal council for most early seasons, and occasionally in recent seasons as a twist. The final tribal council was first expanded to include three contestants for Cook Islands in 2006. This change has helped contribute to a trend of flashier winners, as it’s more difficult for an under-the-radar player to sit next to two goats (see below) in a final three.

fire (n.) — Something that represents your life in the game. Something that comes in the form of flint. Something that shouldn’t take two hours to make—especially when you have matches:

fire token (n.) — An in-game currency introduced for Winners at War that allows players to buy advantages—or peanut butter.

fire-making challenge (n.) — Exactly what it sounds like: A challenge in which two contestants race to build a fire, with the loser going home. It was once just a tiebreaker during a Final Four, but since 2017’s Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, it has been used to decide who gets eliminated at every Final Four.

gamebot (n.) — A player who prioritizes strategy above all else. Typically these types of players aren’t tuned into more subtle aspects of Survivor, like relationship-building and likability.

“getting firewood” (v.) — Looking for a hidden immunity idol.

“getting water” (v.) — Strategizing.

goat (n.) — A player with little chance to win who gets taken to the end because they are unlikely to receive any jury votes.

GOAT (n.) — Check back in a few days—Winners at War could crown one.

going to rocks (v.) — A tiebreaker for votes that occurs before the Final Four, in which players who do not receive votes draw rocks, with one going home. Players have a chance to revote to break a tie before rocks are drawn. This incentivizes players to avoid ties.

gross food eating challenge (n.) — A staple of early seasons that has fallen out of favor in recent years, though it returned for Season 38 as a reward:

hidden immunity idol (n.) — Secret idols that can grant players immunity at tribal council. In old seasons, these were rare, powerful, once-in-a-season forces that could shift the entire game. In modern seasons, there are so many that it’s basically impossible to keep track of them all.

idol nullifier (n.) — An advantage introduced in David vs. Goliath that enables a player to block another player’s hidden immunity idol. The player using the nullifier must correctly write down the name of the player the idol will be used for before the idol is played.

jury, the (n.) — The previously voted out players who get to berate whichever final tribal council members they don’t like. They also decide who wins.

jury management (n.) — The act of trying to get on the good side of players who will be voted out, or of acting performatively at tribal councils to impress those players who are already on the jury. If done well, this strategy can ensure a finalist wins enough jury votes at the end. If done poorly, that player will come across as transparent and fake.

legacy advantage (n.) — An advantage introduced in Millennials vs. Gen X that gives a player immunity at Final Six (or Final 13 in Game Changers). If a player holding the advantage is voted out, they may send it to someone still in the game.

live tribal (n.) — A tribal council in which players actively strategize, typically by moving about the set and whispering in each other’s ears. Once reserved only for special occasions, they have become frequent. Soon, a “live tribal” will just be known as “tribal.”

loved ones visit (n.) — A special reward challenge late in the game when players get a chance to spend time with their loved ones.

mactor (n.) — A model/actor who was recruited for the season. These players typically care more about Instagram followers than winning the game.

merge, the (n.) — When multiple tribes become one final tribe that goes to the end of the game. This is when the real fun begins.

Pagonging (n.) — When one tribe anticlimactically picks off members of the other tribe after the merge. This was named after Pagong, the tribe that fell victim to the Tagi alliance on Borneo. With idols, advantages, and a higher emphasis on strategy, recent seasons don’t see many Pagongings.

Parvati 2.0 (n.) — What many younger women think they’ll be on the show: flirty, manipulative, and diabolical. However, players who attempt to play like Parvati typically overplay their hand and go home early.

perfect season (n.) — A season in which the winning player gets every jury vote and also receives zero votes throughout the season. Has been accomplished only by J.T. in Tocantins and Cochran in Caramoan.

physical threat (n.) — A physically fit player—usually a man—who other players think is good at challenges (regardless of actual challenge skill), and who therefore must be voted off immediately, even if the game is still in its infancy and winning challenges is good for the tribe.

plurality vote (n.) — A delicate and risky plan to vote a player off without a full majority of votes. The most famous example of this is Cirie Fields’s 3-2-1 vote in Panama.

Ponderosa (n.) — The island/resort area in Fiji where players go after they are voted out.

power couple (n.) — Any romance that happens on the show. Since future married couple Rob and Amber ran the table in All-Stars, the formation of a power couple has been feared by other contestants.

pregaming (v.) — On seasons with returning players, alliances that happen before contestants arrive at the island and cameras begin rolling.

Probstisms (n.) — Any weird stuff that Jeff Probst frequently says, including:

  • Wanna know what you’re playing for?
  • You gotta dig deep.
  • Come on in guys.
  • Got nothing for ya.
  • Worth playing for?
  • Fire, in the form of flint.
  • All the fix-ins.

provider (n.) — A player who is good at actually surviving on the island and is able to help the tribe. These players do things like build the shelter, catch fish, start fires, and gather resources. In modern seasons, this type of player has no value and can be voted off without a second thought.

purple edit (n.) — A player who mysteriously gets almost no screen time, almost as if the producers and/or editors have a vendetta against that contestant. Named after Nicaragua’s Kelly, who had a purple streak in her hair and quit on Day 28.

queen, a (n.) — Any fan-favorite female contestant.

Queen, the (n.) — Sandra Diaz-Twine.

Redemption Island (n.) — A twist in which cast members who are voted out go to an island where they compete in duels and await a chance to come back into the game. This island is slightly less desolate than Extinction Island.

résumé (n.) — What a player has to have at the final tribal council to win jury votes. The desire to pad a résumé leads players to attempt big moves, sometimes with disastrous results.

rites of passage (n.) — A retired and boring segment of each finale episode in which the final players gather torches and remember the players who had previously been voted out.

robbed goddess (n.) — Any popular female player who makes it far in the game but does not win.

school, new/old/middle (n.) — The three broad buckets that most players and seasons can be grouped into.

Sia award (n.) — A prize handed out by the pop star Sia to her favorite contestant each season. This is a real thing that actually happens—I’m not sure anyone really knows why, but shouts to Sia for being Survivor’s benefactor.

snakes and rats (n.) — The iconic line from Sue Hawk’s final tribal council speech in Season 1, and still the greatest moment in Survivor history. (For the record: Richard Hatch was the snake; Kelly Wiglesworth was the rat.)

social game (n.) — Basically just making friends on the island. Arguably the most important aspect of a winning game, but gets overlooked in favor of flashy strategic play.

spy shack/bunker/nest (n.) — An invention by Tony Vlachos, in which he hides behind bushes, climbs trees, or buries himself alive to try to eavesdrop on other contestants.

superfan (n.) — Similar to a gamebot, a contestant who is a huge fan of Survivor. These players—or at least, the show’s editors—sometimes think being a fan is a replacement for a real personality or backstory.

super idol (n.) — An idol that can be played after the votes are read. This type of advantage takes away from the tension and drama of every tribal council for which it is in play.

swimsuits (n.) — Something players don’t get anymore, thanks to Tyler Perry (really!). Previously, contestants would be given their swimwear partway through a season—now viewers just have to look at increasingly nasty underwear for no clear reason.

tree mail (n.) — The notes tribes receive that tell them about challenges and other events in the game, usually located in a kind of mailbox in the jungle behind camp. This still happens on the island, but is no longer shown due to time constraints.

trust (n.) — Something you must have in the game, but also something that doesn’t really exist in the game.

vote split (n.) — A plan when a supermajority of players cast votes on two different members of the opposing alliance in order to protect themselves from an idol.

winner’s edit (n.) — What a player is said to be receiving when Survivor goes out of its way to present the player in a positive or impressive light—or shows them saying they’ve already won.