The Devil’s dictionary returns!

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including palindromidae, factoid, gyration gladiate, laminate, and lamprey

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


palindromidae  members of very rare camelid species with such nearly perfect anterior-posterior symmetry that only experts can determine which end is the front and which the back. The most famous example is the Pushmi-pullyu, a llama with heads on both ends. Its first description in the scientific literature was provided by the group of Dr. John Dolittle (see, for example, Lofting et al, 1922), who originally mistook it for a cross between a gazelle and a unicorn. (The mistake was corrected for the documentary film on Dolittle’s career, produced by Walt Disney in 1967.) The animals themselves often become confused about whether they are coming or going, and have nearly gone extinct due to physiological difficulties during reproduction, or quarrels over which end gets a mate. The term is sometimes extended by analogy to human beings who can’t tell their heads from their asses.

factoid  a unit of information which can be combined with other units to create a fact.

gyration  the circular motion of an object around an axis, such as planets around a star, or hips around a pelvis. Gyration was discovered by Elvis Presley; until then, it was thought that the hips moved according to a model based on epicycles.

gladiate  to mediate between parties in a dispute using knives, axes, or other weapons, including the tongue, if it has been sufficiently sharpened by irony.

laminate  to preserve an object – such as a hotdog, a PhD student, or a cadaver – by placing it in an airtight seal, using Saran Wrap or a similar substance, so that it can be bought from a vending machine or unpacked for use in experiments at a later date.

lamprey  an organism that attaches itself to another, or sometimes unintentionally an inanimate object, by placing its lips on the surface it and sucking hard to create a sort of biological suction cup. If, by chance, two lampreys engage in a mutual lip-lock, one may suck the other inside. The term is sometimes extended metaphorically to a scientist who hitches his career onto that of another and never lets go. Parasitic lampreys live off the blood out of their hosts, sometimes boring through the skin; the mechanisms that prevent them from boring all the way through and falling out the other side have not yet been described. The best method of removing a lamprey is with a crowbar.

Here’s a slightly revised version of an old entry, enhanced after some new historical facts came to light:

oviduct  In modern times this refers to a chute or apparatus in an egg factory which transports an egg from its point of origin in a chicken to its ultimate destination in an egg carton. The etymology of the word is interesting; the roots are derived from ovi- (eggs) and ductus, which was a Medieval vocal composition to be performed during marches or processions. The link between eggs and music is a custom from ancient times that began before dawn every day when a procession of soldiers, priests, and other dignitaries marched to a farm, selected an exceptional egg, and marched it back to the palace, setting the pace by singing a ductus. At the palace the egg was delivered to the Duke of Breakfast, who examined it for cracks or other obvious flaws, such as syringe marks, which might be an indication of an assassination attempt, in a ceremony adorned by plenty of Pomp and whatever Circumstances the occasion might require. After the Duke’s formal acceptance of the egg, he placed it in a bejeweled container called an ovi-carton and personally delivered it to the King. The King conducted his own inspection, with the option of declaring it kingsworthy and handing it to a page for delivery to the kitchen, or rejecting it and cutting off the Duke’s head.

Thus the original meaning of oviduct is best captured by a phrase such as, “Processional music for the King’s Egg.” The oviductus was one of the major musical genres of the late Renaissance and Early Baroque eras, undergoing an evolution not dissimilar to that of the sonata, dance suite, opera, and kazoo symphony, fulfilling an essential social function by providing a livelihood for musicians who were contractually obligated to compose a new one every day for as long as they were employed by the court, unless they died or went insane. All oeuvres in the genre share a feature: the rhythmic structure of the “Colonel Bogey March.”

In modern times Kings get their eggs from, sometimes using the delivery-by-drone service, and this sounded the death knell of/hammered the final nail into the coffin of/brought a definitive end to the art form known as/ushered in the Götterdämmerung of the musical genre known as the oviductus.

When a thing disappears the word often follows, unless it jumps the species barrier to inhabit another object. Oviductus was rehabilitaed in the shorter form oviduct: understood as a chute, apparatus, delivery robot or limousine service that collects a product at its source (chicken) and delivers it to its destination (egg carton). Linguistic creativity led to the combination of -duct with other roots in words such as aquiduct, boviduct, air conditioning duct, etc. In the process –ducts came to represent passageways between the starting position of a thing and its final resting point: Acquiduct, for example, is the route by which “aqua” (water) is passed to cities and towns and ultimately into the urinary tract for recycling. Bovi-, the Latin root for cattle, has now been used to coin the term boviduct, a passageway in slaughterhouses used by cows who have been selected for passage to the Other Side and a new plane of existence which must be pretty wonderful because they are so content they forget to write postcards home. By extension, one should understand air conditioner duct as the network of passageways in a house by which air conditioners are shuttled from room to room.

I recently came across a modern reference to a boviduct in a text in Dutch on a website. Here I present the original and a rough translation. (For those of you who don’t speak Dutch, a word of caution: be aware that according to some scholars, Dutch isn’t a real language. It’s a random mixture of German and English and some old Viking words, thrown together with any word order a speaker feels comfortable with, and then vocalized in a Scottish brogue. This is actually wonderful for translators, because it gives them a great deal of freedom in interpreting the text. It also adds a certain excitement to relationships, because neither partner can ever be completely sure of what the other means.) I certainly wouldn’t call myself an expert in Dutch, but based on a thorough acquaintance with English and German and after a weekend of total Dutch immersion I have enough of a feel for the language to offer a rough translation:


Een aantal panden kan worden afgevoerd omdat ze inmiddels zijn gesloopt of zodanig verbouwd dat de historische kantjes er wel af zijn. Maar de speurders kunnen er ook wat aan toevoegen: karakteristieke stukjes bebouwing die beschermd dorpsgezicht zouden moeten worden, mogelijke archeologische vindplaatsen (Oene) en een aantal kleine cultuurhistorische objecten. Een daarvan is het ‘boviduct’ in Vaassen, een tunneltje als doorgang voor het vee onder de Geelmolensebeek door, die even voor de Geelmolen in een hoge bedding stroomt. Het zou de enige boviduct in Nederland kunnen zijn.


A portion of panda can work effectively if governed in the middle of ten sloppy sudden buildings where the historical corners are well-seen. But the spurters can hook something up to the tobogan; characteristic pieces built the smeary (beschmierde) dork-face that has suddenly become mute (Note: the word in the original Dutch is moet, and the author may instead be referring to an alcoholic beverage), perhaps like archeological wind palaces (or at least one of them) and a smidgen of small culturo-histo objects. A divan is the “boviduct” in Vaassen, a tunnel which begins at the doorway of the horny moles’ back door, which existed even before the horny moles needed it to “storm” (move with effort) a huge bedding. It is there that the only boviduct in the Netherlands can be seen today.


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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