Yoo-hoo! Another update in the Devil’s dictionary…!!!

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


all text and images copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge

omnivore  as nearly the exact opposite of a vegan as you can get.

accessoire  a technical term for anything that must be removed from the body before undergoing an examination with an MRI machine.

monomer  Derived from the Australian pronunciation for “my number,” this expression has been traced back to an incident that occurred in a bar between an Australian and an attractive young lady who spoke some more natural form of English. Before parting company the Australian offered to give her “monomer”, which she misinterpreted as an obscenity and then promptly fled the scene. By extension, in biology, the term is now used to refer to a molecule that can’t get a date.

digit  structures on the hands and feet of animals that originally evolved from twigs. In the earliest animals, digits were still very twig-like. Animals grew from the tips of their fingers and toes, sometimes to amazing distances from the body they belonged to. Leaves and fruits sprouted from the twigs, which put a lot of food conveniently within grasp. But mutations in an early animal stunted the growth of digits to the point that they could no longer bud. Genetic engineers might have helped restore these characteristics, but the Crispr/Cas system hadn’t yet been acquired from simpler organisms, due to conflicts over issues of rights and patents.

After about 100 million years, evolution managed to get the digits hooked up to body utility services such as the vasculature and sewage lines, and at some point a cable company appeared and linked them into the network of the CNS, suddenly placing them under the control of the brain. There were advantages: digits could now be used to pick lice off a spouse, or grab a potential spouse by the hair, or point at things you wished for your spouse to bring to you, such as a bottle of beer, and you could even indicate the number of beers you wanted, provided it didn’t exceed 10 at a time. That was all right because 10 was about the most bottles your spouse could handle in a single trip. Finger-pointing covered most situations that otherwise would have required language, so the evolution of that region of the brain was postponed for a few more hundred million years. During that period mouths were used mostly for eating things and the tongue for picking food from the teeth. Any utterances were simply the by-product of exhaling air through a larynx, past the glottis, the tongue, the teeth, etc.

hydrophile  a customer in a bar who orders exclusively Perrier, which is frequently an indicator that you are dealing with a recovering alcoholic. Compare with vinophile and hopsophile.

keratinization  any process that produces a carrot from some object that is different enough from a carrot that if you had seen it before it became a carrot, in its undeveloped state, you would never guess that its fate was to produce a carrot.

oviduct  Today this refers to a chute or apparatus in an egg factory which transports an egg from its point of origin in a chicken to its destination in an egg carton. The etymology of the word is interesting; the roots are derived from ovi- (eggs) and ductus, which was a Medieval vocal composition to be performed during marches or processions. The link between eggs and music is a custom from ancient times that began before dawn every day when a procession of soldiers, priests, and other dignitaries marched to a farm, selected an exceptional egg, and marched it back to the palace, setting the pace by singing a ductus. At the palace the egg was delivered to the Duke of Breakfast, who examined it for cracks or other obvious flaws, such as syringe marks, which might be an indication of an assassination attempt, in a ceremony adorned by plenty of Pomp and whatever Circumstances the occasion might require. After the Duke’s formal acceptance of the egg, he placed it in a bejeweled container called an ovi-carton and personally delivered it to the King. The King conducted his own inspection, with the option of declaring it kingsworthy and handing it to a page for delivery to the kitchen, or rejecting it and cutting off the Duke’s head.

Thus the original meaning of oviduct is best captured by a phrase such as, “Processional music for the King’s Egg.” The oviductus was one of the major musical genres of the late Renaissance and Early Baroque eras, undergoing an evolution not dissimilar to that of the sonata, dance suite, opera, and kazoo symphony, fulfilling an essential social function by providing a livelihood for musicians who were contractually obligated to compose a new one every day for as long as they were employed by the court, unless they died or went insane. All oeuvres in the genre share a feature: the rhythmic structure of the “Colonel Bogey March.”

In modern times Kings get their eggs from Amazon.com, sometimes using the delivery-by-drone service, and this sounded the death knell of/hammered the final nail into the coffin of/brought a definitive end to the art form known as/ushered in the Götterdämmerung of the musical genre known as the oviductus.

When a thing disappears the word often follows, unless it jumps the species barrier to inhabit another object. Oviductus was rehabilitaed in the shorter form oviduct: understood as a chute, apparatus, delivery robot or limousine service that collects a product at its source (chicken) and delivers it to its destination (egg carton). Linguistic creativity led to the combination of -duct with other roots in words such as aquiduct, boviduct, air conditioning duct, etc. In the process –ducts came to represent passageways between the starting position of a thing and its final resting point: Acquiduct, for example, is the route by which “aqua” (water) is passed to cities and towns and ultimately into kidneys for recycling. Bovi-, the Latin root for cattle, has now been used to coin the term boviduct, a passageway in slaughterhouses used by cows who have been selected for passage to the Other Side, and a new plane of existence which must be pretty wonderful because they are never heard from again. By extension, one should understand air conditioner duct as the network of passageways in a house by which air conditioners are shuttled from room to room.

I recently came across a modern reference to a boviduct in a text in Dutch on a website. Here I present the original and a rough translation. (For those of you who don’t speak Dutch, a word of caution: be aware that according to some scholars, Dutch isn’t a real language. It’s a random mixture of German and English and some old Viking words, thrown together with any word order a speaker feels comfortable with, and then vocalized in a Scottish brogue. This is actually wonderful for translators, because it gives them a great deal of freedom in interpreting the text.) I certainly wouldn’t call myself an expert in Dutch, but after a weekend of immersion I’m starting to get enough of a feel of it to offer a rough translation:


Een aantal panden kan worden afgevoerd omdat ze inmiddels zijn gesloopt of zodanig verbouwd dat de historische kantjes er wel af zijn. Maar de speurders kunnen er ook wat aan toevoegen: karakteristieke stukjes bebouwing die beschermd dorpsgezicht zouden moeten worden, mogelijke archeologische vindplaatsen (Oene) en een aantal kleine cultuurhistorische objecten. Een daarvan is het ‘boviduct’ in Vaassen, een tunneltje als doorgang voor het vee onder de Geelmolensebeek door, die even voor de Geelmolen in een hoge bedding stroomt. Het zou de enige boviduct in Nederland kunnen zijn.


A portion of panda can work effectively if governed in the middle of ten sloppy sudden buildings where the historical corners are well-seen. But the spurters can hook something up to the tobogan; characteristic pieces built the smeary (beschmierde) dork-face that has suddenly become mute (Note: the word in the original Dutch is moet, and the author may instead be referring to the alcoholic beverage), perhaps like archeological wind palaces (or at least one of them) and a smidgen of small culturo-histo objects. A divan is the “boviduct” in Vaassen, a tunnel which begins at the doorway of the horny moles’ back door, which existed even before the horny moles needed it to “storm” (move with effort) a huge bedding. It is there that the only boviduct in the Netherlands can be seen today.

Reference: https://ampt-epe.nl

methane  an organic substance produced by enzymes and other components of the metabolic machinery making up the gastrointestinal tract of cows. Methanes have an affinity for each other, and so in the cow gut they accumulate until they form a bubble which can only be ejected from the system by a fart. This is one of three sounds that a cow can produce. The others are lowing, a sound that a cow makes when it is trying to be discrete (ref: “Away in a manger,” Kirkpatrick 1895, Murray 1887) and mooing, which typically indicates distress or loneliness. An ability to control the release of a fart would give bovide a third sound which, if used with the others in a combinatorial system, would vastly increase the number of concepts that could be expressed in cow language. However, it has been impossible to reproduce an initial experimenting hinting that the temporal distribution of farts is non-random, which would lend credence to the control hypothesis. The result is a hot debate in the field, the literature, and the barn over whether cows possess such a fart regulatory system, or whether its existence is simply another case of scientific wish-fulfillment-as-the-end-of-the-current-funding-period-grows-nigh. If the system exists, it opens the door on another controversy: whether the mechanism is physically located in the gut or in some other tissue that is close enough to make sense, such as the tail. In any case, once methane escapes a cow’s body, through a type of release valve at the posterior end of the animal, the bubble bursts and methane scatters into the atmosphere, where it interacts with other volitile substances in ways that, according to current climate models, will completely destroy the Earth’s atmosphere in about 12 years.

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

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.

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



Today’s updates in the Devil’s Dictionary

Dear friends, finally some updates in the Devil’s Dictionary… Today’s words include archaea, gold standard, planarium, and the null hypothesis! Enjoy…

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases are
copyrighted 2017 by Russ Hodge

archaea  a unicellular organism known as an extremophile, generally meaning that it thrives in places the rest of us would find uncomfortable, such as hot thermal vents on the ocean floor, where they are thought to have evolved about 3.5 billion years ago, or in the tanks of Jacuzzis in hotels, the cloud palaces of Venus, or the belly button of a man who refused, for reasons that are unclear, to take a shower or otherwise bathe for many years. It is also unclear how the Archaea got into the belly button, although 3.5 billion years is probably enough time to crawl there from the ocean floor if you have a clear destination in mind and don’t make a lot of pit stops along the way. Some scientists believe that archeae invaded primitive bacteria and established a symbiotic relationship, leading to the evolution of the modern eukaryotes, although it is hard to see what they got out of the deal, unless they regarded the bacteria as hotel resorts where they could get cheap Jacuzzis.

Regarding the belly button, I cite from the original article: “Of special note are three phylotypes of Archaea [we found in the belly button], a domain of life often found in extreme environments and not previously reported from human skin [1], [27], multiple phylotypes of which we isolated from two independent samples (see online Supporting Information S1). Two of these three phylotypes were from an individual who self-reported not having showered or bathed for several years.” Reference: Jiri Hulcr, Andrew M. Latimer, Jessica B. Henley, Nina R. Rountree, Noah Fierer, Andrea Lucky, Margaret D. Lowman, Robert R. Dunn. A Jungle in There: Bacteria in Belly Buttons are Highly Diverse, but Predictable. Plos One: Nov. 7, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0047712

gold standard  an amount of pure gold equivalent to the value of an impact point. In ancient times, alchemists were actually awarded gold for their achievements (i.e., the degree to which their strange experiments came close to making it). In modern times, the gold standard was replaced with paper currency (journal articles), and is basically worthless in objective terms.

planarium  a strange model organism that never dies, but simply shrivels up for a while when food is scarce and then fattens again, and sometimes reproduces, when food is plentiful, resembling the way humans attempt to control their phenotype through various diets. When you attack a planarium with a knife and cut it into up to 256 pieces, each subunit is capable of reproducing an entire organism. The 257th piece is used as food. It is unclear why this hasn’t left the Earth piled in heaps upon heaps of planaria. The best explanation is that there are lots of planaria shriveled up in various locations, waiting for their chance to puff up and achieve world domination.

null hypothesis  a theory claiming that everything is nothing, or nothing is anything, or that nothingness pervades the universe, or would do so if the universe existed, but according to the null hypothesis it doesn’t, so what would there be to be filled with an infinite amount of nothingness? And does a system containing only nothingness obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Can the same volume hold different degrees of nothingness, which differ only in the density of nothingness against a background of nothingness, and if so can the nothingness in a system increase over time, or decrease, depending on how you see these things, to the point that eventually all the nothingness will be gone, and there will be nothing left at all, not even any nothingness?

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

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.

New updates in the Devil’s Dictionary!!!

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



in situ  an experiment that can be done sitting down, preferably in the comfort of your own home, without having to get up, allowing you to do science while remaining within reach of the TV remote and alcoholic beverages, although it is permissible to have other people bring you things. An example of an in situ experiment is to extract organic material from your belly button for use in a metagenomics experiment. Another is to stare fixedly at a computer screen for as long as possible without blinking, repeating this several times, and then taking an on-line eyesight test to determine the degree to which your eyesight has worsened. At that point you can order new glasses via the Internet and have them delivered to your door.

fontanelle  a gap in the skull of newborn humans that was originally used for whistling and snorkeling. It could also be used to add or remove parts of the brain as a means of enhancing the learning process. Nowadays the fontanelle has changed dimensions to the point that it is almost exactly the size of a USB port, in anticipation of the day in the near future when knowledge will be transferred via flash drives.

proboscis   a tissue extending from the front of the face which probably evolved as a mechanism to probe the space ahead, a bit like a blind person’s cane, or the front bumper on your car. If you walked slowly enough and hit an obstacle, you would first detect the impact via the proboscis, which was soft enough to absorb an impact providing you weren’t traveling faster than about 10 cm per second, which would trigger a reflex that instinctively brakes the rest of the body before it suffered so much damage that insurance companies needed to get involved.

icthyology  the study of the religions and belief systems of fish.

fluke  a case in which the tail of a whale appears spontaneously, unexpectedly, and inexplicably in the middle of any laboratory experiment or procedure or some other place where you do not typically expect to find one, for example in a test tube full of ribosomes,  or in a yeast culture, or on a highway in Kansas, or in your sock drawer.

flagellum  a whip-like structure that arose in early prokaryotes as a mechanism by which they could express displeasure by beating on their neighbors. Because early microbes had not yet discovered the principles of Newtonian physics, they were perplexed when this activity caused an equal and opposite reaction: beating your neighbors also pushed you away from them, which was usually desirable, at least until they learned to behave, and had the added benefit of bringing you into contact with more types of organisms that you could beat. In the long term this caused the environment to adjust to your basic desires, rather than the other way around.

The advent of multicellular organisms had two major effects on the structure and functions of flagella: 1) it meant that neighboring cells began to exclusively beat each other, because they were stuck together, leading to a relationship resembling marriage, and 2) flagella initially caused problems of orientation, because in essence the organism had lots of rowers, each of whom rowed in whatever direction he or she pleased. The development of mechanisms that coordinated the beating behavior of flagella in multiple cells had a survival advantage: if rowing carried you away from a source of food, you could steer back toward it. This led to the evolution of social hierarchies, such as dictatorships, in populations of cells, giving one cell the decision-making power over other cells in determining the direction that they should row. From that point it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to the modern human brain.

funghi  a foodstuff that originally evolved as an organelle of Pizza Rustica, but then underwent a sort of metastatic process through which fungi wandered off the plate, into the forest, and adapted in ways that permitted growth in moist soil. This had health benefits for pizza eaters, because to get the best tasting funghi they had to get off the sofa and go for walks outside.

parsimony  a basic principle in science which involves trying to keep things simple. This can only be achieved in a scientist’s early years, before life gets cluttered by events such as matrimony. At that point parsimony becomes very difficult, and in the alimony phase it is completely impossible.

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

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, Dec. 4 update

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



note: all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2016 by Russ Hodge

digestion  a process that plays an essential role in an organism’s health by undoing the negative effects of eating. This requires aggressive enzymes that are contained in a sort of high-security facility called the gut, which prevents them from escaping and digesting the organism they reside in. Digestion is also crucial to the long-term maintenance of ecological systems. Without it, large organisms would eat all the smaller organisms and exhaust the food supply. Digestion returns those at the top of the food chain to the bottom in the following way: a large organism eats another large organism, thereby breaking it down into smaller units so that it can be eaten by organisms with smaller mouths; their digestion, in turn, reduces this matter into even smaller units that can be eaten by other organisms with even smaller mouths, and so on, until the units are so small that they can be eaten by microbes, which have no mouths at all. That’s not the end of it; the process continues to the level of molecules, quarks, superstrings, and stops just before reaching infinitismity. Each passage through a digestive system performs a public service by removing toxins that would otherwise kill the smaller species that feed on its feces. Digestion is the main piece of evidence for the “Giant Robot” school of evolutionary theory, which claims that multicellular organisms arose as the most efficient way for bacteria to reach the food that is stored on high shelves.

conglomerate  an entity consisting of several partners, usually institutes or businesses, which have been joined together, thereby forming a glom. The precise historical meaning of “glom” has been lost, but it most likely referred to the sticky masses of alcohol, bodily secretions, cigarette butts, and other detritus of human civilization that fall to the floor of a bar and become glued together, forming gloms. EU collaborations or multinational corporations are examples of conglomerates.

corroborate  derived from the verb “to rob,” meaning to commit a theft. To corroborate means to join together in a gang or band to commit a crime, usually intellectual in nature.

postulate  to proclaim something while standing on a post: a precarious position from which one can easily be knocked off by the wind, a cow, or the shotgun of a rancher who does not look kindly upon trespassers who stand on his posts.

to deliberate – to consider a topic in a group for the time required to take into account all relevant points of view and as many irrelevant ones as can be produced in the time that is available. This happens most often in a situation such as a faculty meeting where attendance is compulsory and everyone must stay to the end, which places deliberations, from a legal point of view, into a grey area between kidnaping and hostage-taking. The amount of time required for a deliberation depends on the amount of time it ought to take a single person to come to a decision and the number of participants (n). If ten minutes would normally suffice, the time needed for a deliberation can be calculated according to the following formula:

Time = 10n

range  a defined finite space whose boundaries are often described by numbers, in which a cow or another free-roaming object, such as a piece of data, wanders aimlessly about in a leisurely and random manner, sometimes stopping to eat something it finds on the ground, such as a boot, a weed, or a dead armadillo, chewing it repetitively for as long as it takes until it can be swallowed. “Ranging from 1 to 5” indicates the position of the fences that border this space, which an item within the range should not cross. Otherwise it risks being electrocuted by the fence or shot by the farmer whose land begins on the other side.


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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