Updates to the Devil’s dictionary AND a special new cartoon series!

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



Today’s topic: PERSPIRATION and its many derivatives.

perspire  etymology: from the Latin per, which means with or through, and spire, which is the pointy thing on top of a church; the compound perspire is probably derived from the fact that a spire is awfully darned heavy and whoever has to carry it up all those stairs to mount the thing on the roof is bound to emit some sweat. Perspiration is an involuntary process in which anywhere from 1 to 1 billion pores of the skin open and release a fluid that covers the skin. The precise composition of this liquid is a mystery, at least to me, unless you have eaten garlic recently. Perspiration is found in many living species, and a few nonliving ones, although I’m not sure about fish. They probably perspire, but measurements are technically challenging, and it’s hard to see the point. Whatever, this wide pattern of evolutionary conservation suggests that perspiration has some vital function, including some, all, or none of the following, respectively: 1) it provides an outlet for fluids so that an organism won’t explode if something goes wrong with its bladder; 2) it has antiseptic properties, which is why mothers use it to wash your face, although you’d rather they didn’t in public places; 3) under certain lighting conditions it diffracts light in a manner that renders a person invisible, which is helpful in evading predators, such as your boss, an unpleasant relative, or a loan shark; 4) some of it slews off a person (the perspirer) and hits anyone following him (the perspiree), for example during the Tour de France, who undoubtedly find this bit of precipitation refreshing, unless the perspirer’s perspiration contains trace amounts of banned substances that might later appear in the urine of the perspiree (One defense tactic attempted by Lance Armstrong, which fell through because there was rarely anyone in front of him, and he was unable to come up with a convincing mechanism by which perspiration could overcome the laws of physics); 5) it contains pheromones that attract a member of the opposite sex, but only briefly; later your partner becomes habituated to it, which comprises the middle period of a marriage, and finally develops an allergy to it, which can be quickly cured by divorce, murder, or some other method of separating spouses. It should be noted that there is a weak correlation between perspiring and doing work. Perspiration is also correlated with lying. Therefore signs of perspiration may mean you were working, you were not working but are lying about it, you were working and lie about it, or some fourth alternative, such as a rare condition not yet recognised by medical science but will be named for your doctor if it kills you.

Perspiration has been spun off into many derivatives, including:

  • aspire  to intend or plan to perspire
  • respire  to perspire again if it didn’t have the desired effects the first time
  • inspire  to motivate others to perspire
  • conspire  to perspire with at least one other person, usually while participating in a free-time activity such as reproduction, or a plot to overthrow the government
  • expire  to perspire to an excessive degree with fatal consequences
  • transpire to perspire across traditional boundaries between disciplines or genders; another meaning is the brief state of spiritual enlightenment that sometimes follows  heavy perspiration, but prior to the onset of the heart attack.
  • expire  to perspire to an excessive degree with fatal consequences
  • despire an existential Angst related to anxiety about perspiration performance, or a feeling that perspiration has lost its spiritual significance; this can also mean to physically remove the tower and spire of a church, usually as a college prank, then relocate it to somewhere unexpected: the back seat of the convertible that belongs to the head of your department, the breakfast cereal aisle of a grocery store, or the International Space Station.
  • perspiritus  an alcoholic beverage made from fermented perspiration
  • prospire  to perspire professionally
  • perspirosome  the cellular compartment that synthesizes perspiration
  • panperspirum hypothesis  the theory that life on Earth arrived in the form of extraterrestrial perspiration borne by comets, spaceships, or shed by aliens during the Tour de France.
  • Perspi-cola  a soft drink that was marketed very briefly in the 1980s. Stories that the drink contained naturally-produced perspiration is probably an urban legend; over a period of about 20 years, Perpsi-cola chemists had developed a synthetic version that was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. The drink was removed from the market after three days due to its failure to attract a loyal customer base, probably because it tasted disgusting.

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

Letting science communication (and a cat) out of a box

Some little-known facts about Kansas

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.

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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 https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

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