The Devil’s dictionary, July 1 update

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


premortal  a phase of life up to and including the moment of death, followed by embalming and a brief nap before hatching as a fully mature zombie.

law of independent assortment  the physical law dictating that during a migration to the laundry and back, one sock always vanishes. Despite extensive research, it has not yet been determined whether this occurs during transport or processing, nor is the mechanism known. A variety of hypotheses have been put forward: degradation, some bizarre fetish ritual, or cannibalism. A recent study suggests a novel alternative: the stress of centrifugation in a washing machine activates a color-switching gene. The sock is in fact still there, but is unrecognized by the foot. This does not explain why the number of outbound socks is even, but odd upon their return; the authors suggests that a counting defect might be involved.

effector  the person from the lab who makes regular trips to the funding agency in Brussels with the small silver suitcase full of cash handcuffed to his wrist. It’s permissible to turn over the bribe to any agent officially licensed by the EU, whose contact details are found on the proposal submission webpage. Please note that since last week, the credentials of all Bribe Officers with passports from the UK have been revoked.

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you might like:

Losing your heart in Heidelberg, then getting it back

or On the publication of “Remote sensing” by the magazine Occulto


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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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