Holiday entries in the Devil’s dictionary!

Today’s entries in the Devil’s Dictionary include fruitcake, novelty, polymery, sepal, shrub and whorl.

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2018 by Russ Hodge

fruitcake  the product of a complex chemical experiment in which flour is taken in its raw, inedible form and combined with various other ingredients, some of which originally hung from trees in tropical climates, then subjected to intense heat until they reach a solidified form that is practically inedible unless you are willing to risk some teeth. A person probably wouldn’t die after eating some, but it has rarely been tried; only anecdotal evidence exists in the literature. The baked form resembles an adobe brick and can be used for most of the same purposes. The other main use is purely ritualistic and plays a role in Christmas festivities. A family bakes some, wraps them up as presents, and gives them to the neighbors. They, in turn, give their own version of fruitcake as form of revenge. Neither will eat the object, but you can’t throw it away – they might notice it in your garbage can. People do check what their neighbors are throwing away after the holidays. The solution is to archive it in the deep freeze, with a label indicating the year. We have a fruitcake in our freezer from the year 1897.

novelty  a scale used to indicate the degree of plagiarism or copyright infringement contained in a project or paper. “High novelty” indicates that a term, experiment or concept has been modified enough to evade most legal actions. A “low degree of novelty” is usually an indication that the author or inventor should be heavily insured against claims by others.

polymery  a state of intoxication in a parrot.

sepal  a sort of umbrella growing over the bud of a flower, to protect it from hailstorms and hide its sexual organs from the wrong pollinators.

shrub  a derogatory term used by trees to refer to plants that are unnaturally stunted, haven’t fulfilled their potential, or are somehow disappointing overall.

 whorl a region within a person’s hair which is shaped like a tiny hurricane, formed through similar physical forces. In those born in the Northern Hemisphere, whorls generally form in a clockwise direction, while in the Southern Hemisphere the structure flows in a counter-clockwise direction, viewed from above. Usually this region is located on the back side of the head, although there have been well-documented cases of its appearance in other places, such as between the eyebrows. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot retrain a whorl to grow in the opposite direction by sticking a finger into it and twirling it in the opposite direction, or with the aid of some mechanical device such as an electric mixer, although a few recent studies suggest that this can be achieved temporarily if the device rotates at a speed above 1000 rpm.

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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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