Finally an update to the Devil’s dictionary! Today’s words: vitalism, homunculus, -ify

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

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

vitalism  an outdated view of life that was ultimately supplanted by materialistic theories such as evolution and the billiard ball model of the universe. Vitalists held that inorganic substances such as water or black coffee had to be perfused with a spiritual energy to have any kick to them. Vodka or whisky worked best.

homunculus  a miniature person postulated to exist somewhere inside a normal human being, probably in a tightly folded form. A homunculus is smaller than a dwarf or gnome, more on the scale of an elf or fairy, but larger than a blood corpuscle. Natural philosophers considered the existence of homunculi essential because without one, how could a physical body make decisions or move its limbs – for example, to answer its cell phone? They reasoned that there had to be a tiny person inside who makes all the decisions and pulls the strings: a sort of Mission Control, or Wizard of Oz, or perhaps a product made by Apple. The homunculus theory lasted quite a while until someone pointed out that the homunculus, too, would have the same problem – it, too, would require a wizard or some other being to tell it what to do. This led to the unhappy theoretical conundrum of infinite recursion, otherwise known as “it’s elephants all the way down.” To solve the paradox some bright bulb proposed that the body of the homunculus contained a Philosopher’s Stone, a sort of smart rock. How it got there is unclear; probably the elf or fairy had to swallow it.

Some people give their homunculi names, like “Bob” or “Ezekial”, or “my little Princess.” In Boston, for reasons that are unclear, everyone’s homunculus is named “Herman.” This explains why they pronounce the word “hermunculus”, or in extreme cases, “hoimunculus.”

-ify  a suffix added to a word and thereby transforms an object into the thing that the suffix is attached to, whether it wants to change or not. What it was before the transformation is anybody’s guess. Liquify, for example, describes the process of making a liquid out of something that shouldn’t be, such as hair, or a motorcycle. Solidify, by contrast, creates an unnatural solid. An example of solidification is to turn cream into butter and then carve it into a life-sized replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, or perhaps a sculpture of a cow – which is creepy, akin to some form of cannibalism or incest.

Other uses of -ify include:

pacify – to make something such as a screaming child peaceful, usually either by sticking a silicon or rubber object in its mouth, or by shooting it (contrast with Peacemaker)
mortify – to exhibit such poor manners that you kill someone
petrify – to scare something so badly that you turn it to stone
classify – to force a bunch of unruly objects – such as first graders – into a group, despite their protests
crucify – to force people to stand for very long periods of time with outstretched arms, sometimes using a wooden structure as a support
clarify – to take something murky and extract everything of interest until it becomes so transparent it is practically invisible
ratify – to turn something into a rat
carrotify – to make a carrot out of something that was never meant to be one
satisfy – to disrupt a person’s natural state of grumpiness and render them content, usually only very briefly
edify – to rename someone Ed (not to be confused with edwardify, edwinify, etc.)
codify – to turn something into a type of fish that sucks on the mud at the bottom of lakes or oceans (contrast with catfishify)

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.

If you liked the Devil’s dictionary, you might also like the series:

Molecular biology cartoons

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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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