The Devil’s dictionary, Nov. 16 update

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


note: all entries in the Devil’s dictionary are copyright 2016 by Russ Hodge.

break  as in, to break something  the first stage of reverse engineering, which is a technical skill that forms the basis of pirating software, technology, or the secret recipe for Colonel Sander’s Fried Chicken, which one of my aunts claimed to have reverse engineered and shortly thereafter was never heard from again. Reverse engineering is based on the principle that a technology can be replicated by breaking it into its functional parts, making counterfeits of them, and then assembling the new pieces in the same way as the original. Ideally this is accomplished following the same steps as disassembly but in the reverse order, although minor detours are commonplace, especially if you didn’t take very good notes. Reverse engineering always results in one screw too many or one too few. This has to do with the law of conservation of mass and energy, which dictates that a thing can’t simply disappear without some transfer of mass or energy; otherwise this creates a wormhole or some violation of the space-time continuum and may destroy the entire universe. Thus the extra screw is to make up for the one that was missing the last time.

Break is used for both physical and metaphysical objects, but typically not for whole living organisms; you won’t find “break a cell,” for example, although you can crack them, and it’s also fun to blow them up with the microinjector. If you do find the word “break” in an expression such as “break a horse” (one can’t “break a mule”), or “break a predoc,” or “break yo momma,” the meaning is metaphorical – it is the spirit of the bull, or the momma, or the PhD student that is being broken in some abstract manner. Break can be used with body parts, usually those that are more solid: “break an arm,” and “break some heads,” but some softer parts are included as exceptions: “break your heart,” “broke his brain,” “frequently breaks wind during committee meetings.”

In common usage break bears many negative connotations – dismemberment, disease, death – but also many positive ones (coffee break, break a leg, marriage break). The majority of engineers, but not biologists, claim a broken object originally set them on the path to a scientific career. The parents were out, something broke, it had to be fixed before the parents returned. With furniture it could be done, and maybe the electronics – not so much the pets.

fact  an observation about the identity, quality, or characteristics of something that two people can agree on despite differences in their moods, religious beliefs, gender, or political persuasions, or the number of goats that live in their houses, suggesting that the observation has objective value. Certain things can never be facts, even if their validity is extensively documented and can be measured: the age or degree of fatness of a spouse, the birthplace of a President, or the amount of taxes a person ought to pay. In the United States, since about 2008, there have been no facts at all.

reductio ad absurdum  explaining a system or concept to a level simple enough that a human with an average level of education can understand it without the help of a computer. Thus reductio ab absurdum is the guiding principle in writing articles for newspapers or blogs. If even then it is too complex to be understood, run the text through Google Translate using the “pirate speak” setting.

reproduction  any process that permits something to make a replica of itself, nearly always leading to the creation of something of poorer quality than the original – including photocopying, faxing, sexual intercourse, teaching, gossip, and memory. Repeated rounds of reproduction usually distort the outcome to the point that it is unrecognizeable.

open source  a code phrase which you use to inform someone higher in your institutional hierarchy that his fly is open. In recent years it has been used metaphorically to refer to efforts that involve community action and a free exchange of information, the way that the entire community at the party is aware that the department chairman’s fly is open, and in the open source philosophy it would be unethical to withold that information, so you share it freely with everyone, along with any speculations you wish to share freely about the reason it is open. The open source philosophy predicts that at some point in this process, the chairman will inevitably become aware that his fly is open. If only by the fact that all eyes are pointedly averted from it.


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

On the publication of “Remote Sensing” by the magazine Occulto




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