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vitalism  an outdated view of life that was ultimately supplanted by materialistic theories such as evolution and the billiard ball model of the universe.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:

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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.

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

Molecular biology cartoons

The best of PubMed

More updates in the Devil’s dictionary

All the best for 2020!
If you like the site, please share and recommend it to your friends!

today’s entries: tohuwabohu, vegan, zither, and zoology.

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

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

tohuwabohu  a state of absolute chaos, similar to the state of the very early universe, or the laboratory after a party.

vegan  an extraterrestrial being from a planet that orbits the star Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The biochemistry of their world is so fundamentally different from that of our own that vegan refugees have a hard time finding anything edible on Earth.

zither  an annoying instrument which only functions after being pounded on, pinched or stroked. While this is also the case for most other equipment, true zithers are seldom seen in modern laboratories. If you’re asked for one, first determine whether your colleague has a lisp and is actually asking for “scissors”.

zoology  the scientific study of zoos, a field which has produced remarkable insights into interactions between predators and their prey – particularly crocodiles, polar bears, zookeepers and small children, although not necessarily in the same cage at the same time. A number of general principles have emerged from zoological research: cotton candy should not be sold within the grasp of great apes, and people should not climb over fences to take selfies with lions. And anyone who makes rude faces at an orangutan or disturbs a shark by knocking on the glass may well get what is coming to him. In recent years zoology has taken on the wider theme of studying any interaction between species that have been removed from their native environments and sequestered together in an unnatural habitat, such as a marriage.

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.

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

Molecular biology cartoons

The best of PubMed

The Devil’s dictionary: Now available in printed form!

Want that perfect gift for your scientist friend/spouse/group leader/ collaborator/competitor…? The complete Devil’s Dictionary is now available as a bound book… 80 pages of craziness…

Contact me by email or through the blog if you’re interested:
hodge@mdc-berlin.de

New updates to the Devil’s dictionary!!!

today’s entries: blastulation, chorion, latebra, and reproductive value.

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

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

 

blastulation  A process in an early stage of embryogenesis whereby cells form a hollow, balloon-like sphere (or blastula, although any Latin nerd will tell you it ought to be called a blastulum, just as the singular form of spatula ought to be spatulum). In ancient times, before evolution got things straightened out, blastulas (or blastula, depending on your stance on the spatula/spatulum issue) often suffered the fate of balloons being overinflated. They blasted apart, hence the name. Then evolution produced gastrulation, which had basically the function of adding extra layers to the balloon so that it could expand to the size of a whole animal without exploding.

chorion  The yucky, skin-like envelope still left on the surface of an egg after the shell has been peeled off, if you didn’t properly follow the manufacturer’s protocol for boiling an egg. Whether the chorion is also there before the egg has been boiled is a matter of intense controversy among chorionologists. One school holds that it is indeed there, while the other maintains that the chorion is an artifact that arises through the process of boiling, like the skin that forms on boiling milk. The question has not been resolved because so far, all attempts to peel unboiled eggs have resulted in a state of affairs technically known as a mess.

latebra  The white stuff in an egg – in other words, everything except for the yolk, the shell, the chorion, parasites, other visitors, GPS tracking devices, or any foreign entities you might find there. Whether the latebra is white before you open the egg is a philosophical question on a par with the light-in-the-refrigerator debate.

reproductive value  A quantitative value assigned to females which represents the number of children they will still have once they have reached a particular age. For a female aged x, for example, the reproductive value would be represented as Vx. If the female is aged x + 3, then the reproductive value would usually be lower, unless she is a late starter, or has yet to attract a partner, or has an unenthusiastic partner, or is taking potent fertility drugs, or her partner is taking such drugs, at which point things get rather unpredictable and the formula becomes more complex. The reproductive value also depends on the species in question, and whether the “3” represents years, months, or minutes; in any case the value should be adjusted by subtracting the number of children the female had during the 3 years, months or minutes that have passed, yielding a formula something like Vx + 3 = Vx– y, where y = the number of children she could have had during that period, although if she bore twins this should be corrected to 2y, triplets 3y, octuplets 8y, etc.

 

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as well as the serious pieces in the categories Teaching and training, etc.

 

 

 

More new entries in the Devil’s Dictionary

today’s entries: habitat patch, isolating mechanism, loafing platform, Mammalia

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

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

habitat patch  the area where an organism belongs, rather than the place it has wandered off to, often indicated by some sort of “patch” (insignia, merit badge, bar code) worn on the fur, skin, or some other surface area. This explains the note your mother pinned to your shirt the first day of school, providing an address and phone number in case you got lost. Habitat patches also explain why a lot of children end up in the Pumpkin Patch on Halloween and a great number of dolls land in the Cabbage Patch.

isolating mechanism  some biological feature, behavior or device used to keep animals from mating with each other under circumstances that are somehow inappropriate. The barriers may be biological, behavioral, ecological, social or any combination thereof: cases of mating between mice and whales are very rare in the literature, for example, not only because dates are hard to arrange, but socially discouraged, not to mention the physiological difficulties. Humans have used isolating mechanisms as well: placing a sword in the middle of a bed shared by an unmarried couple, as described in the Arabian Nights and a tale by the Grimm brothers. Another example is the practice of “bundling”, in which courting couples were allowed to sleep in the same bed provided they were sewn into separate sacks ahead of time. In a poem from colonial America, the practice is described this way:

A bundling couple went to bed
With all their clothese from foot to head;
That the defense might seem complete
Each one was wrapped in a sheet
But oh, this bundling’s such a witch
The man of her did catch the itch,
And so provoked was the wretch
That she of his a bastard catch’d.

From the Atlas Obscura

loafing platform  a sort of raft or structure that some birds build on the surface of water to stash their kids, to keep them from getting into trouble or floating away or being eaten by sharks. Loafing platforms are the waterfowl equivalent of couches or playpens equipped with DVD players.

Mammalia: “Mammalia is a group of animals known as the vertebrates (have backbones) and belong to the class Mammalia.” From: https://biologywise.com/biology-glossary-of-terms-definitions and winner of the “Circular Definition of the Month” prize.

The Devil’s dictionary is finally back!!!

After a very long hiatus, the Devil’s Dictionary is back and growing again!!!

today’s entries: kleptoparasitism, lores, migratory overshooting, and mirror-image disorientation

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

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

kleptoparasitism  a phenomenon in which one organism attaches itself to the body of another to steal its food rather than going to all the trouble of hunting or shopping on its own. Psychologists believe that many cases of kleptomania may actually be caused by small kleptoparasites hiding on a person’s body, although this has yet to be used successfully as a defense in a criminal case. The term is used metaphorically to refer to in-laws or other relatives who show up for a visit and refuse to leave.

lores  a region of the face between the eyes and bill of a bird, or between the eyes and mouth of other animals. This area is sometimes occupied by a nose. Lore is also used to refer to the back part of the cheeks of insects. If you are surprised to discover that insects have cheeks, and that they are subdivided into functionally distinct regions, well, chalk it up to just another failure of today’s educational system.

Surprising indeed is what happens when one enters the terms “lore cheek insect” into the Pubmed search engine. This delivers an astounding article on the topic “Spider lick,” published in 1961 by the British Journal of Ophthalmology. I highly recommend this classic of scientific research, which begins thus:

“In certain parts of the world and at certain seasons, a number of patients may be seen who show lesions of a character which at once strike one as being unusual and not described in textbooks of ophthalmology, nor in standard student textbooks of medicine, dermatology or tropical medicine. One has only to see a few cases to realize that here are lesions so characteristic as to constitute a syndrome. The lesions may be seen on any part of the exposed skin, but are especially common on the eyelids and contiguous skin of the face…”

The introduction goes on like this for a while and then concludes: “The trivial nature of the condition is probably the reason for the omission of an adequate description in most textbooks, and for the fact that its aetiology is not generally known. In the north-east region of India, where the condition is comparatively common, it is called ‘spider lick’, but it is not due to a spider nor caused by a lick.”

migratory overshooting  at the end of a trip, failing to stop when the GPS announces that you have arrived at your destination. This often results in driving through the back wall of your garage.

mirror-image misorientation  a term used to describe the behavior of birds or other species that migrate in a direction opposite to the normal route. This occurs in animals that get “left” and “right” mixed up, or that have trouble following directions, or are just contrary by nature. The term is also used to refer to humans if they move to a country where people drive on the wrong side of the road, or who leave Texas to spend the winter in Missouri, rather than becoming Winter Texans, as is the natural order of things. Most injuries that occur while shaving are caused by mirror-image misorientation. As well as those that happen while backing up a trailer attached to a car.

The Devil’s dictionary returns!

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including barb, barber, blennogenous, etc.

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

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

barb  is commonly used in two ways:
1. as the short form of Barbara: a Barbie doll that has finally emerged from puberty and reached adulthood. Given the rather vague nature of the anatomy of these creatures, usually only experts can tell when this has occurred.

2. one of the hair-like projections emerging from the spine of a feather. What keep the barbs from sprouting off in all directions like the tail of a cat or a toilet brush are smaller structures on barbs. The absence of these features in cats and toilet brushes impedes their ability to fly, at least without help. In a feather, barbs are kept aligned by barbules, which are smaller projections sprouting from a barb. A barbicule is an even smaller projection that sprouts from a barbule. After that, it’s barbicules all the way down.

barber  a person or mechanism (such as a molecule, a robot, or duct tape) that attaches the barbs to a feather or removes the barbs from a person’s head. In some cases both occur, for example if a person’s head is shaved prior to being tarred and feathered. In casual speech, “barber” is sometimes used to refer to people who trim barbels, which are the whiskers of catfish, but the proper designation is barbeler. This should not be confused with a barbeller, which means a person who assembles barbells or routinely uses them in a job, such as breaking legs for a loan shark.

barognosis   the ability to sense and respond to pressure. Some people lack this sense, or progressively lose it with age; they refuse to budge no matter what type of pressure you apply. The term for this condition is barognosticism, and its practitioners are barognostics.

blennogenous  a more refined word for “snotty”, as in, “Don’t get blennogenous with me, young man!” Blennogeny refers to the progeny of snot, namely everything expelled in a sneeze. Blennogenophony refers to synchronized sneezing, an aesthetic performance so far only popular in New York, where it will hopefully remain quarantined. The most highly developed form is the blennogenosymphony, which common decency prevents me from describing here. Really, one must draw the line somewhere.

endogenous rhythm   The natural cycle of biology and behavior of an organism when it’s not prompted to activity by some external force, such as a complaint by a spouse, the closing time of a bar, jackhammers out on the street, or the arrival of hordes of relatives – not necessarily in that order. Humans exhibit endogenous behavior on holidays that are not accompanied by lots of baking, such as President’s day.

larvivore   an organism that eats larva, usually on purpose. Nearly all humans are unwitting larvivores, particularly those who buy foods that have been religiously protected from pesticides, or who fail to clean out the kitchen cabinets at regular intervals.

residual volume  a little reserve of air at the bottom of the lungs that remains after you think you’ve expelled it all – like the gasoline that remains in a car’s tank after the needle hits red. No matter how hard you exhale, there’s always just a little more – ask any tuba player.

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The Devil’s dictionary updates

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including applanate, apterygial, cyanophil, onychium, mystax, and Elmer’s organs

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

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

applanate an adjective used to describe an organism or ecosystem that has been flattened, such as the turtles my grandmother used to run over with her car, microbiomes living on chairs, spiders caught out in the open, or Western Kansas after a tornado.

apterygial   a category comprising animals without wings or without fins. Thus the Animal Kingdom can be divided into apterygials (including most humans, at least those I know, and housepets such as dogs, cats, sheep, cows, and aardvarks, but not parrots, chickens or ostriches) and anapterygials. Anapterygials can be further subdivided into winged anapterygials that do not have fins, and finned anapterygials that do not have wings, and full anapterygials, which have both wings and fins. The only full anapterygials I know are flying fishes and sportsmen who combine hang-gliding with scuba diving. A few full anapterygials can be found in the fossil record, but they went extinct about as quickly as most hang-gliding divers.

cyanophil a person or organism that experiences an unnaturally strong attraction for the color green, such as those stuck in line at a stoplight, or blues, such as John Lee Hooker. A cyanophil with colorblindness may rush toward the color red as well, which may account for the behavior of most people operating automobiles in the city of Naples, Italy.

mystax the word animals use for “mustache”. Not to be confused with mystics, although they often have mustaches that appear to be animal in origin. Also not to be confused with myxo-, a prefix placed in front of a word to indicate that something is slimy. Myxomud, for example, refers to mud; other instances include myxolawyer and myxolitic, the name of a musical scale that some Medieval authorities deemed slimy, or vulgar. Myxo- and mystax are occasionally combined to form myxomystatic, describing animals with a runny nose, and occasionally myxomystatic mystics, which is technically incorrect, but you get the point.

onychium   what you find if you pop open a fingernail and check under the hood.

Elmer’s organs glands found in the snouts of moles or the snoots of very nosy people. Their function is unknown, but it probably has something to do with the sense of touch. If someone tells you that Elmer’s glue was originally derived from substances extracted (somehow) from Elmer’s organs, which would have been hard to do without suffering some wounds, it’s probably not true – but rather just an amazing coincidence.

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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.

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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.

FROM THE ARCHIVES:

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.

 

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