The Devil’s dictionary, July 5 update

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


classification  a system for dividing life into logical groups: organic, semi-organic, inorganic, semi-literate, unmarriable.

correlation  something that happens shortly before, during, or after something else, making you think they are causally connected. Usually the two things need to appear together more than once to be considered a correlation, but maybe it’s a rare event, and you just haven’t waited long enough. A lot of things, for example, correlate with “when Hell freezes over,” which surely doesn’t happen that often. And sometimes personal circumstances prevent a correlation from taking place, even though you want it to. For example, there’s a correlation between having a birthday and getting birthday cards, but sometimes people just forget. If you uncorrelated your friends, they’d probably feel upset. So it’s better to tell them, next time you see them, “There’s a correlation between having your birthday and gettings cards from your friends,” and they’ll surely get the hint.

sprocket  a wheel-like cog that screws onto the doohickey that fell off the thingamajig.

doohickey  a small knob or control on a thingamajig that does damnedifIknow.

thingamajig  a piece of laboratory equipment whose technical name you can always remember until just the moment you need it, at which point it is always being used by what’s-her-name. You know that the lab has a second thingamajig somewhere – which you call a whatchamacallit so that people will know what you’re talking about, but you can’t find it, either. The conversation that ensues goes like this:

“Have you seen the thingamajig? I really need it.”

“Which thingamajig are you talking about?”

“The one that what’shername is using.”

“Really? I thought she she’d finished with the thingamajig. Why don’t you use the watchamacallit?”

“I can’t find it. I think it’s got a broken doohickey, anyway.”

“Ask what’shisname, he’s fixed a doohickey before, but I think it was the one on the thingamajig.”

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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