The Devil’s dictionary, April 20, 2018

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including altruism, heterochrony, etc.

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge

age  is a short suffix that can be added to most nouns and a few other speciages of wordages if you can get them to hold still long enough to attach it. Its original usage stemmed from attaching the word “itch” to something that caused one. “I wouldn’t give you five cents for that beddage (bed-itch),” someone might say, implying that a mattress was full of lice. Other spellings were incorporated early on: “radish” comes from “red-itch,” as some who ate the vegetable developed a rash. Later British noblemen began to add “-age” to words under the mistaken impression it derived from a similar French suffix (“personne” becomes “personnage”), and that using it would suggest they spoke French, which would people think they were more intelligent, higher-class, and cooler than they actually were. They used the suffix to make simple things seem more complex and sophisticated than they actually were. A “dosage” was something a physician gave you; a “dose” was something acquired in a less respectable social setting, and the reason for your visit to the doctor in the first place. A nobleman referred to his social equals as his “peerage”, aiming to imply that they deserved respect; the unintentional irony was that more literally, you were saying he was “lousy” (full of lice). This use of “-age” to make things sound more intelligent or technical has persisted to modern times. “Usage” is often favored over “use”, although they mean the same thing. And you’d never listen to a relative go on and on about the amount he pays for gas, which is nothing more than griping and his own dumb fault for buying the car; “mileage” sounds more technical and scientific, and can start a discussion that lasts for hours.

altruism  a disputed term used by some psychologists to describe a temporary, dissociative cognitive state marked by mental confusion and unnatural behavior. The most distinctive symptom is that a person suffering from altruism places the well-being of others above his own, even when this involves risky and even self-destructive behavior. This extends to individuals beyond his or her own children in what has sometimes been described as “an overgeneralization of the mothering instinct.”

Altruism seems so contradictory to evolutionary principles that some refuse to believe it exists and try to explain every altruistic act as ultimately selfish. The problem troubled Darwin to the point that he put off publishing the theory of evolution for more than two decades, spending more than half of that time in a painstaking study of barnacles. This aquatic creature is commonly used as an animal model of human altruism because in some sub-species, males have given up their bodies altogether in service of females, now existing as little more than a sac of sperm, a sort of parasite inside the female body. Darwin finally resolved the conflict by realizing that short-term altruistic behavior might have a function like bird plumage, by attracting potential mates. It might fool someone into thinking you were “nice”, at least long enough to invite home for a few rounds of reproductive exercise. Most bouts of altruism wear off quickly, within a few hours, but the original performance might have been so impressive it could years for a mate to realize it was a temporary aberration, and the victim is normally just as selfish as everyone else.

Diagnosis is tricky and altruism can only be definitively detected through EEG recordings and a brain scan. These measurements reveal a depressed activity in areas of the brain related to basic instincts of self-preservation and higher cognitive functions, akin to the brain’s response to canniboids. The longest duration for a uninterrupted altruistic state recorded in medical history is four hours, although the patient was sedated for most of that time.

heterochrony  the inability toremember whether to set your clock ahead or back at the beginning and end of Daylight Savings’ Time, and then to draw the proper conclusion about whether you have gained or lost an hour. As for what happens at the International Date Line… Forget it. Severe cases of heterochrony are often accompanied by a conspiracy theory mentality which holds that the hour isn’t really gone you lose an hour no matter which way you turn the clock, the result of a governmental conspiracy to steal an hour from citizens twice a year, during which it has unique access to your bank account and has an hour to invest your savings in highly speculative stocks, or work the slots at an on-line casino. There is little risk because it will just add any losses to the amount due in calculating your income tax. You never notice that anything has happened because the extra hour never officially existed – they keep shuffling it back and forth across time zones – and although your money is gone, this does not appear on your bank balance. And why should it? There was never actually any physical money in the account anyway. They keep it stored in ATMs.

A woman with the condition is called a heterochrone; the male form is heterochronus, their offspring are labeled heterochromognomes. Compare with homochrony, which has nothing to do with Daylight Savings Time.

homochrony  the ability to march or clap, although not necessarily simultaneously, at a regular pace coordinated with the rhythm of any marching or clapping going on around you. Animals either do this instinctively or don’t care; in humans early training helps. The technical term for people who never acquire this skill (famous case: Ronald Reagan) is “ain’t got no rhythm.” Those who do got rhythm can refine it to the point of being able to march in formation while twirling a baton or playing a musical instrument, despite wearing a bizarre band costume that resembles the attire of the British colonial forces that occupied India.

to proportionate (verb)  an aggressive social behavior in which a person proactively volunteers to cut the pie, or the chicken, or divide the loot, in a thinly disguised move to get the most. After things have been divvied up, the distribution is said to be “proportionate” (adjective) if the portions people receive correspond to the amounts they deserve, calculated through a complex formula that takes a person’s body mass index into account and variables such as whether your spouse feels that your BMI falls into an acceptable range, whether he or she is presently at the table, and the H (holiday) factor, where the normal physiological regulators of eating are repressed. If a proportionatee disagrees with the amount he has been proportioned, he may petition a civil court, at which point he has the opportunity to present evidence that his piece of pie was too small. The court may order the plaintiff and defendant to enter a binding process to decide on “reproportionation,” to whose terms both parties must agree. If they are unable to come to terms, the case is heard again and decided by the judge.

book lice  a parasite created through genetic engineering techniques by introducing termite genes into head lice. Originally developed for their potential as a form of organic recycling, librarians got their hands on the bugs and began cultivating them in S1 laboratories in the library basement. Staff harvest the colonies for their eggs, which are spotted onto the pages of books before they are loaned out. The eggs are timed to hatch precisely one day after the date due, at which point the lice crawl out of the book and take up residence in nearby volumes on the patron’s shelf or any available textile, which is why you should never read a library book in bed and should always return it on time. The eggs are highly sensitive to changes in the environment of the book; improper handling, such as dog-earring a page, often triggers early hatching. Book lice are to library patrons what the dye packs they hide in currency are to would-be bank robbers.

host  has two distinct meanings in science. The first is a deragatory term by which unicellular organisms refer to multicellular life. For bacteria, “host” has about the connotation of a motel whose rooms have no bath, no cable service, and whose swimming pool is exactly the size of a Jeep, namely one that missed the exit ramp on the Interstate, flew over the guardrail, and plopped into the pool, where it was such a tight fit that it could no longer be extracted. A pathogen goes off on a trip for a while and takes copious notes, so that when it comes back it can compare its holiday experience with those of the neighbors. Bacteria can’t access the Internet, so they distribute their reports biochemically, sometimes at the level of genes. Over time individual human bodies are ranked in terms of comfort and the level of services they provide. Very few people are awarded a five-star rating, and when it happens the pleasure is short-lived. They become vacation hotspots that are overrun by all sorts of pathogens, inevitably killing the host, but by that time a trendier new place has usually been found.

The second usage of hostin scientific contexts is positive: as a term of respect that one scientist may bestow on another after being invited to give a talk at the colleague’s institute. “Host” is reserved for someone who covers all of your travel expenses, naturally first-class, takes the visitor to excellent restaurants, where the prices on the wine list are explicitly ignored, and puts you up in a four-room suite at a hotel with all the amenities, such as an all-night bar well stocked with attractive, lonely conversation partners. Upon request a host will assign you a bodyguard to escort you to the bar, stay discretely on hand to jump into any fights that may arise, and then get you get back to your room in one piece, unless you indicate otherwise using a secret sign agreed upon in advance, possibly but not necessarily indicating that you have managed to hook up in the bar. If the hosting scientist fails to meet any one of these criteria, you return home and insert a reference to the trip whenever possible in casual conversations, and write an exhaustive account of the visit on websites such as LinkedIn, but conspicuosly neglecting to refer to your colleague as the host. Being at least as smart as pathogens, other scientists get the idea, and will make up wild excuses to avoid having to give talks at institutes rated with four stars or below.

hatch  As a verb, hatch refers to the process by which an organism emerges from the receptacle in which it has undergone the stages of embryogenesis, whether an egg or a womb, often freeing itself by pecking an opening with its beak. So birds hatch from eggs and children hatch from the womb, unless the child is an amphibian or a reptile.

As a noun, hatch refers to a flap-like tissue that covers the throat which remains closed until it is stimulated by a liquid of high alcoholic content. This triggers a reflex by a hinge-like muscle at the back of the flap, causing it to open and permitting the alcohol to go “down the hatch”. From there it is routed to special cavities throughout the body that are dedicated to the processing of alcohol. There are several of these tubular structures, located in regions such as in the legs, where gave rise to the expression, “He has a hollow leg.” (The technical term is overflow lumen.) When alcohol enters such a lumen, it causes a sensation that the drinker reports as, “That really hit the spot.”

hindgut  a region of the intestine which lies below the hindbrain, when the body is in an upright position, and is connected to it via a large bundle of nerves that bypass the spine. This conduit permits the gut to monitor brain activity and take over some of its functions, such as communication, in an emegency. When a person is incapacitated, for example through the excessive consumption of alcohol, or decapitated entirely, the hindgut steps in and sends unequivocal signals of distress to those nearby. It has two modes of doing so – generally trying one and waiting for a response before trying the other. If neither on its own provokes other people in the bar to take caregiving measures – such as calling an Ueber driver – the hindgut activates both signaling systems simultaneously.

In type 1 signaling, the hindgut jerks swiftly upwards and delivers a focused “punch” to the stomach, which forces its contents upwards in the form of projectile vomiting. In type 2 it presses downwards, clenching the lower intestines in a vise-like grip that forces any pockets of noxious gas to seek the nearest exit, generally accompanied by a loud acoustic signal. Such noxious gases are usually plentiful because the body naturally produces them as it metabolizes fermented substances.

flocculate  the process by which a floc is produced from a microfloc. What happens before that, no one knows, but microflocs can’t just arise from nothing, so it is reasonable to infer the existence of nanoflocs. Anyone who cares about what comprises nanoflocs – there’s something wrong with you.

ooopossum  the oocyte of a possum.

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

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

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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