The Devil’s dictionary, Jan. 19, 2019

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including complementary air, complemental male, cribiform, competitive exclusion prenciple, lek, etc.

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2019 by Russ Hodge

complemental air an amount of air which can be drawn into the lungs beyond that normally needed for breathing, up to the point that they pop. Lungs, like balloons, come with a recommended maximum volume which may vary during activities like deep-sea diving and hiking trips to the Himalayas. Users exceed these values at their own risk.

complemental male a little dude that the females of some species carry around in case of an emergency. In the era of modern reproductive technology, complementary males have generally been replaced by vials of sperm.

cribiform a word used to describe the shape of any animal that can be used as a spaghetti strainer; cribiform organisms or colonies sometimes arise spontaneously at the apertures of shower drains.

competitive exclusion principle an evolutionary observation that two different species generally can’t occupy the same space without one becoming extinct, for example a married couple and their in-laws.

lek a courtship area that lies at some distance from nesting and feeding grounds; typically, a bar, or a motel room with short-term rates.

otolith “ear sand” – crusty calcium deposits which collect in the ear and are generally removed with the index finger on the same side of the body; using the other hand looks strange. This delivers external pathogens to the inner ear and was a cause of major epidemics until the invention of the Q tip. The mechanisms that produce otolith remain unclear. Hypotheses include: sand blown into the ear while lying on a beach, which may take decades to completely dribble out; particles dropped by birds or from airplane lavatories that land in the ear whenever you tilt your head; migratory belly button detritus; material ground up by the gears in the brain and exuded, if a person neglects to change the brain oil filter at regular intervals.

pterocarpus something or someone in possession of winged fruit, such as a flying banana.


single nucleotide polymorphism  a case in which a letter generally found at a specific location in the genetic code (or another text) has been replaced by another letter. This can change the phenotype of the organism. In the following text, for example:

“The barn is fallin’ apart”

Replacing the letter “a” with an “e” produces the following text:

“The bern is fellin’ epert”

and changes the speaker from an American to a Scotsman.


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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