An update to the Devil’s dictionary: WORMS!

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

all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2020 by Russ Hodge

worm   Worms belong to the family Wormidae, which is the Latinate designation, although the word “worm” descends from the Old Lower High German Wurm, which meant dragon, suggesting that the species have undergone a significant reduction in size and a few other changes over evolutionary time. There are two major classes of worms, each of which consists of about a zillion subtypes. These are arranged in subclasses, at least theoretically; in practice, no two scholars agree on the criteria by which this should be done. It’s a good thing for wormologists: if they could solve the problem it would put most of them out of business, since most publications on worms have to do with taxologies. The major classes are the flatworms, or Flatidae, and the fatworms (Fatidae). In the historical literature one sometimes sees the nomenclature Flatulae and Fatulae, but these terms were modernized because they couldn’t be used without provoking hysterical laughter and confusion. To tell the difference all you have to do is step on one. A Fatidae will make an audible, somehow satisfying popping sound when you apply weight to it, whereas a Flatidae will hardly be perturbed at all. In fact, some subtypes of Flatidae are almost impossible to kill – you can chop them up into pieces and they regenerate entire worms; eat them and they take up residence in your gut; apply a flamethrower and you’ll probably burn down your lab before you kill them. This would pose an immense overpopulation problem except that Flatidae are so thin you can stack a million on top of each other without the pile getting appreciably thicker.

The unifying characteristic of worms is their lack of legs, which might cause them to be confused with snakes, except that they also lack teeth. As a means of locomotion, they draw on the musculature of their digestive system, which is basically a tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the tail – although it takes an expert to tell the difference, and even worms sometimes get confused. Basically, worms are intestinal tubes that lack limbs and other unnecessary embellishments.

Worms have an important ecological function, as the biological equivalent of Roombas. They creep along the ground and suck up anything in their path. Molecules inside the worm digest the stuff they eat and transform it into soil, which plants require to grow. (Providing the worm is headed in the right direction. If it moves backwards, the process is reversed.) Plants transform the soil back into worm food, which is their major function. All of this requires lots of energy. Environmentally speaking it would probably be more efficient simply to eliminate the plants, but then the worms would just get into mischief.

NEW: Need that perfect birthday gift for a scientist? Get your printed copy of the Devil’s dictionary here. I’m also planning to publish a book of the cartoons and a new calendar this year.

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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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