Today’s updates in the Devil’s Dictionary

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


genus  a clade of organisms which are exceptionally talented in any area of activity except spelling.

operon  the smallest functional acoustic unit of an opera, typically but not necessarily a very short note that is sung or played by an instrument. Operons can also be produced through other mechanisms: snores from the audience, the sound made by a director’s baton when it accidentally flies out of his hand and strikes a musician in the eyeball, the noise made by a horn player engaging his spit valve, or a long rest in the music interrupted by flatulence, probably also from the horn player.

outbreeding  to engage in the act of reproduction in an distant location, usually outdoors, as in the situation: “Can Jane come to the phone?” “Sorry, she’s outbreeding at the moment, may I take a message?”

fitness  a term in evolutionary theory which reflects the degree to which a person accurately reports his or her waist size. Fitness is calculated according to the following formula:

Actual waist size – Reported waist size = X

where X yields the degree of fitness. A score of 0 represents perfect fitness. Other values for X are negatively correlated with fitness, on a logarithmic scale. Claiming to wear clothes that are one size too small, for example, would yield X = 1 and a degree of fitness of 10% of the ideal. Underestimating your clothing by two sizes would yield a fitness score of 2 (1%), etc. Fitness plays a huge role in the evolution of species because individuals who chronically underreport their clothing sizes tend to buy tighter pants and eventually become sterile. This leads to negative selection which, over thousands of generations, eliminates tight-pants SNPs from a species’ gene pool.

Fitness cannot be improved by over-reporting waist size. This generally causes pants to fall down, entangling the feet, which is not advantageous for fleeing from predators.

open reading frame  a browser window left open by a gene in a public place and unprotected by a password, allowing any old transcription factor to come along, hack into its network, and order stuff using its credit card.

rho factor  a handicap system to make rhoing matches more exciting by giving slower teams a head start on the river. The rhoing factor represents the amount of head start given to the weaker team; a rhoing factor of 100 would mean 100 meters or 100 kilometers, depending on the comparative level of skill of the two teams. This system levels the playing field even when pitting professionals against amateurs. And even greater handicaps can be awarded. For example, when the Cambridge University Rhoers were matched against the Rhoing and Knitting Club for Sopranos Who have Retired from the Grandview United Methodist Church Choir, the Cambridge team was required to rho upstream while the Methodists were permitted to rho downriver, with the help of an outboard motor.


Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium  a mathematical equation devised by two mathematicians – fortunately, because the chances of its accuracy are greater that way – while sitting on a teeter totter and debating the role of recessive genes in evolution. The Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium proves that a group of average people will remain average for generation after generation until they are finally forced to get off the sofa through the arrival of some new form of selective pressure. Examples include invasions by extraterrestrials or WalMarts; any sort of planetary holocaust; an out-of-control Crispr/Cas9 experiment that creates cockroaches the size of battleships; any increase in sales tax; a death, marriage, divorce, homocide, or sterility induced by tight underwear; or all of the above, although not necessarily in that order. If you knew in advance which scenario would occur, you might be able to make preparations, for example by going commando, or constructing really large roach motels. Unfortunately, natural processes are random and unpredictable, so your genome has to be ready for anything – making it advisable to carry a toothbrush with you at all times. Any significant chnge in the environment will upset the teeter totter and send either Hardy or Weinberg flying up through the air, and the other crashing down on his delicate bits.

curmudgeon  a hybrid between a human being and a crustaceon

lumen  an empty space inside an organ or tissue which should be kept isolated from the surrounding environment to prevent toxic effects. A pocket of gas trapped in the gastrointestinal tract is an example of a lumen.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

The Devil’s dictionary, May 21 update

finally: New updates in the Devil’s dictionary!!!

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


All entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge

proboscis   a tissue extending from the front of the face which evolved as a mechanism to probe the space ahead, a bit like a blind person’s cane, or the front bumper of a car. If an animal walked slowly enough and hit an obstacle, it would first detect the impact via the proboscis, which is composed of tissue soft enough to absorb the impact providing the animal is not traveling faster than about 10 cm per second. Upon encountering an obstacle, sensors in the proboscis trigger a reflex that instinctively brakes the rest of the body before it suffers so much damage that insurance companies need to get involved. In many mammalian species this function became redundant through the evolution of whiskers, which is why the species with the longest whiskers tend to have the smallest noses (felines), and vice versa (elephants, whose tiny whiskers are purely ornamental). Derivatives include proboscuity, a habitual and socially offensive behavior in which the proboscis is inserted into places, situations or affairs where it has no business being.

alignment  placing two things next to each other in a way that lines up their ends, at which point they will be determined to have equal length or not. If not, the problem generally needs to be corrected. If aligning one end causes the other not to align, the standard procedure is to chop off the longer one to achieve double-ended alignment. If you cut off too much then the other item will now be the longer one and you must now repeat the operation on the second item, being careful not to get them confused. It is considered aesthetic to align hair, for example, on opposing sides of a person’s head to achieve a symmetrical result, but the actual process of ensuring that each hair on the left side aligns with its partner hair on the right is so complex that it must generally be done by experts and costs about $400. Amateurs often misalign the two sides numerous times in succession, which is the major cause of baldness. This can be avoided by placing a bowl on the head of the person you are trying to align, checking to ensure that their spine and head are straight through the use of a leveling device, and then cropping the hair evenly around the rim of the bowl. The bowl itself, of course, must be perfectly symmetrical and balanced at the exact zenith of the head, preferably by fixing it into place with a small nail or powerful adhesive so that slippage does not occur.

In genetics the term refers to aligning the genomes of two species to determine which one has “the longer one.” Anything hanging over is probably responsible for features found in one species but not the other. It is a myth that females tend to choose mates with extra letters that extend the length of their genomes. Technique is just as important.

conditioning  any process of training which causes a biological entity, such as your hair, to behave the way you want it to rather than to follow its natural instincts.

diuretic  a substance produced by plants which, when ingested by an animal, causes it to release the water it has taken up from the environment more quickly, and closer to its source, rather than carrying it long distances away and depositing it in a foreign watershed. This phenomenon means that diuretic plants get more water and have an advantage in natural selection. A high number of non-diuretic plants in a particular environment usually triggers the rapid development of deserts: the water needed by the plants is carried too far away to do them any good. Upon the death of such plants, the organisms that eat them migrate away, further reducing the recycling of water. The effect is self-reinforcing, which ultimately causes animals to cluster along coastlines, resulting in a huge spike in real estate prices and making a species susceptible to extinction by tsunami. Over the long term this cycle leads to environmental conditions like those found on the moon and Mars, which could have been prevented by the evolution of a single plant with diuretic properties.

generation time  the period of time that a mother requires between giving birth to one child or litter and the next. Mathematically the generation time for a species can be calculated using the following formula:

gestation time + x

where gestation is the amount of time between conception and birth and x is the amount of time between giving birth and the resumption of sexual activity by the mother, usually due to the insistent behavior of her partner.

For humans this generally results in a generation time of 9 months + 20 minutes

habituation  the process by which the brain becomes desensitized to sounds, smells, advertising, well-meaning advice from family members, and various other annoying stimuli rather than responding in an instinctual way, for example by becoming an ax murderer.

mammary gland  what you say to your mother if it becomes necessary to refer to her boob.

If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

Some little-known facts about Kansas