Today’s updates in the Devil’s Dictionary

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

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manufacturer’s specifications  the way a sales rep describes how a machine or protocol should work, which usually does in fact work until the sales rep leaves, at which point it no longer works. A system of planned obsolescence which provides employment for the company’s technicians and consultants.

nonetheless  is an expression which means, “starting at this point you should ignore everything that I have said in the last 20 pages.”

nunc est bibendum  An expression commonly put at the end of papers, which basically means, “The End.”

patent  what a discovery is called after a lawyer finds out about it. Most scientists are unaware of the huge number of lawyers lurking around laboratories, because they are clever at disguising themselves as cadavers, or genetically modified rats. To get them to come out just shout the word “Eureka!” or “Aha!” and one will run up to you and hand you patent application forms.

simple  the quality of being simple. While scientists prefer that things be simple, they don’t like their descriptions of things to sound simple, because people might get the idea that science is simple, and that might make them wonder why scientists get the big bucks to do it. So they have come up with alternative ways of describing simple things, including the following: “a gratifyingly low degree of complexity, bordering on null,” or “a state of not having achieved, evolved, or developed any apparent structural modularity,” or, “an entity or process which can be described without a multiplication of features or properties, in a way that does not affect the predicted outcome.” For those who prefer a single word, the base “simple” can be ornamented with some useless consonants: simplifical, simplificalogical, simplificability, simplificabilicous; or a synonymous base can be used: apolymorphological, amultifeaturological, nonquantiplurifiable, etc.

 

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

EVEN MORE updates in the Devil’s Dictionary

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

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hither  the opposite of thither.

thither  the opposite of hither; almost but not quite yon.

yon  an abbreviation of the word yonder, which is where you’ll end up if you don’t complete your thesis.

reductionism  to repair a piece of equipment that has already been repaired once using duct tape by applying another layer of duct tape.

 

in the same fashion  today this means “in the same way.” Until around the 1970s, however, it meant that everyone in a lab had to wear the same clothes. The group leader had full authority over the dress code, including underwear (or not). The practice began after a paper in a psychology journal suggested that giving group leaders this power would improve their mood, the morale of their labs, and thus the impact of their papers. Most groups adopted the generic lab coat (underwear optional), but others took a more creative approach. Popular themes for laboratory wear included: monogrammed shirts with the logo of the lab bowling team (membership obligatory), black tuxedos, white tuxedos, Vikings, woolen sweaters knitted by the group leader’s mother, Disco, Star Trek, penguin costumes, the Village People, hockey uniforms, Octoberfest, pimps & hookers, Elvis impersonators, the Court of Versailles, the band KISS, characters from the Godfather films, etc. (The “cowboy” theme was forbidden after the first few shootouts.)

last but not least  a phrase commonly used in talks that functions like an alarm clock, or a defibrillator, rousing members of the audience who have entered comas, raising hopes that they may live to hear the end. Speakers who are unable to hold the audience’s attention in any other way use the expression about once every five minutes, even several times in the same paragraph. Officially, this is considered a foul, and any speaker who is caught doing it gets an automatic yellow card and a one-year suspension from the conference circuit.

 

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Fundamentalist math: another outtake from the science cabaret

Some little-known facts about Kansas

 

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

Updates to the Devil’s dictionary AND a special new cartoon series!

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

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Today’s topic: PERSPIRATION and its many derivatives.

perspire  etymology: from the Latin per, which means with or through, and spire, which is the pointy thing on top of a church; the compound perspire is probably derived from the fact that a spire is awfully darned heavy and whoever has to carry it up all those stairs to mount the thing on the roof is bound to emit some sweat. Perspiration is an involuntary process in which anywhere from 1 to 1 billion pores of the skin open and release a fluid that covers the skin. The precise composition of this liquid is a mystery, at least to me, unless you have eaten garlic recently. Perspiration is found in many living species, and a few nonliving ones, although I’m not sure about fish. They probably perspire, but measurements are technically challenging, and it’s hard to see the point. Whatever, this wide pattern of evolutionary conservation suggests that perspiration has some vital function, including some, all, or none of the following, respectively: 1) it provides an outlet for fluids so that an organism won’t explode if something goes wrong with its bladder; 2) it has antiseptic properties, which is why mothers use it to wash your face, although you’d rather they didn’t in public places; 3) under certain lighting conditions it diffracts light in a manner that renders a person invisible, which is helpful in evading predators, such as your boss, an unpleasant relative, or a loan shark; 4) some of it slews off a person (the perspirer) and hits anyone following him (the perspiree), for example during the Tour de France, who undoubtedly find this bit of precipitation refreshing, unless the perspirer’s perspiration contains trace amounts of banned substances that might later appear in the urine of the perspiree (One defense tactic attempted by Lance Armstrong, which fell through because there was rarely anyone in front of him, and he was unable to come up with a convincing mechanism by which perspiration could overcome the laws of physics); 5) it contains pheromones that attract a member of the opposite sex, but only briefly; later your partner becomes habituated to it, which comprises the middle period of a marriage, and finally develops an allergy to it, which can be quickly cured by divorce, murder, or some other method of separating spouses. It should be noted that there is a weak correlation between perspiring and doing work. Perspiration is also correlated with lying. Therefore signs of perspiration may mean you were working, you were not working but are lying about it, you were working and lie about it, or some fourth alternative, such as a rare condition not yet recognised by medical science but will be named for your doctor if it kills you.

Perspiration has been spun off into many derivatives, including:

  • aspire  to intend or plan to perspire
  • respire  to perspire again if it didn’t have the desired effects the first time
  • inspire  to motivate others to perspire
  • conspire  to perspire with at least one other person, usually while participating in a free-time activity such as reproduction, or a plot to overthrow the government
  • expire  to perspire to an excessive degree with fatal consequences
  • transpire to perspire across traditional boundaries between disciplines or genders; another meaning is the brief state of spiritual enlightenment that sometimes follows  heavy perspiration, but prior to the onset of the heart attack.
  • expire  to perspire to an excessive degree with fatal consequences
  • despire an existential Angst related to anxiety about perspiration performance, or a feeling that perspiration has lost its spiritual significance; this can also mean to physically remove the tower and spire of a church, usually as a college prank, then relocate it to somewhere unexpected: the back seat of the convertible that belongs to the head of your department, the breakfast cereal aisle of a grocery store, or the International Space Station.
  • perspiritus  an alcoholic beverage made from fermented perspiration
  • prospire  to perspire professionally
  • perspirosome  the cellular compartment that synthesizes perspiration
  • panperspirum hypothesis  the theory that life on Earth arrived in the form of extraterrestrial perspiration borne by comets, spaceships, or shed by aliens during the Tour de France.
  • Perspi-cola  a soft drink that was marketed very briefly in the 1980s. Stories that the drink contained naturally-produced perspiration is probably an urban legend; over a period of about 20 years, Perpsi-cola chemists had developed a synthetic version that was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. The drink was removed from the market after three days due to its failure to attract a loyal customer base, probably because it tasted disgusting.

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Letting science communication (and a cat) out of a box

Some little-known facts about Kansas

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

Today’s updates in the Devil’s Dictionary

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

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ambiguity  a mental state resembling the condition when someone can’t decide which of your eyes to look at and keeps shifting right-left-right-left until you want to punch them: cognitive eyeball pingpong.

optimism  hopeful expectation without any evidence to back it up. The first stage in depression.

penetrance  the degree to which some genetic or medical condition that you have – such as a cleft chin, or a mosquito bite – annoys you, and as a result the extent to which you annoy everyone around you.

straightforward  moving ahead in a direct line no matter what the impairment, such as during a sobriety test conducted on the highway.

truncate  to reduce the size of something so that it will fit into a chest, for example by chopping off its limbs.

 

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

Friday’s updates in the Devil’s Dictionary

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

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emeritus  a status in academia which is the functional equivalent of taxidermy or pickling, depending on whether the starting material was considered rather fauna or rather flora by departmental colleagues.

therefore  the answer to the question, “Wherefore?”

utter, utterly  an emphatic word, almost always negative, associated with the milk-producing glands of a cow. To say that a competitor’s hypothesis is “utter nonsense” is to imply that it should be chewed up, passed through a bovine digestive tract, and ejected from the scientific literature by squeezing firmly on a large teat. Not to be confused with “otter” or “otterly”.

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

Today’s updates in the Devil’s Dictionary

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

3707_001

competitor  a scientist who, for some reason, has taken a wrong turn on the Path to Enlightenment, accepts false doctrine, and despite your best efforts, refuses to admit the error of his or her ways.

collaborator  a competitor with whom a temporary cease-fire has been negotiated.

regulation  a process in cells involving many molecules whose function is to prevent everything from happening at the same time; in governmental affairs, a process involving bureaucrats whose function is to try to prevent anything from happening at all.

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

The Devil’s Dictionary: today featuring the letter “P”

Today’s entries in the Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases all start with the letter P:

pipeline  the sequential application of many technologies to a scientific problem, forming a sort of artificial digestive tract in which raw materials enter one end and a Wurst-like object emerges at the other. A pipeline is usually constructed by lining up every instrument in the lab in a long row, end to end, in any order you please, so that what emerges from one passes directly into the opening of the next, preferably without human handling. Any technology may be included in the pipeline, including automated X-ray crystallography devices, musical instruments, mousetraps, the lab sprinkler system, and devices people use to alter the three-dimensional structure of their hair. For models of pipelines see the work of Rube Goldberg.

placebo  a treatment or action that has no value whatsoever, since it lacks an active substance that might have some positive effect on an organism’s well-being – a diploma is a good example of a placebo.

postdoc  a person in the lab who, after many years of training, is able to understand the odd mumbling sounds made by a group leader and translate them into occupational therapy activities for predocs, technicians, and other lower forms of life, using equipment on hand in the laboratory. The qualifications needed by a postdoc include: dexterity with a bullwhip; the ability to build a gin distillery using laboratory equipment; basic first aid skills, including the ability to reattach limbs on the proper person and correct side of the body; Black Ops training for carrying out sorties against competitors; and the ability to write sentences of at least four words using proper punctuation, then enhance them with 80 or 90 superfluous words to demonstrate a profound, impenetrable intellect. Candidates with any of the additional skills or experience will be given preference: an internship in a circus (involving the handling of large, aggressive animals); computer hacking (scientific journals), and ventriloquism (when the group leader loses his/her voice or train of thought). (requested by Fatimunnisa Qadri, MDC)

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

Carmen Birchmeier’s Brains

 

 

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Festschrift

on the occasion of
Carmen Birchmeier’s 60th birthday

“It’s complicated.”

– Walter Birchmeier

Abstract

 

In 2013, unbeknownst to most of her colleagues, friends, enemies, distant cousins, and predoctoral students, although not necessarily in that order, Carmen Birchmeier adapted ancient procedures from Medieval alchemists, added some spices from old family recipes, and developed a method of extracting human brains from their natural environment and maintaining them in vitro in the lab. The second step was somewhat harder than the first. Debrainings have been performed before, of course, but the methods remain nearly as labor-intensive and time consuming as they were thousands of years ago. Birchmeier’s innovation was to develop an automated, high-throughput pipeline. But the more serious bottleneck was Step 2: keeping a human brain alive in the lab for more than, say, 10 seconds. That’s where the spices came in.

Once the brains were surviving long enough, Carmen’s carried out some relatively successful experiments to replace the brain in the head, usually that of the original owner, although in one case some sort of administrative error led to what is probably best termed an “involuntary exchange.” The problem was not detected for quite some time because as it turned out, each of the brains preferred its new habitat. Each brain knew that it was in the other body, but it didn’t know whether the other brain knew, and if it didn’t know, well what it didn’t know wouldn’t hurt it. This led to some strange conversations in which everyone was pretending to be someone else, which can be confusing, especially when you were sitting across from yourself. But you don’t need to know any of this. In fact, just forget the last paragraph, because nothing in it reached statistical significance.

The lab attempted to publish a paper on the subject, but reviewers rejected it on the grounds that it was “merely methodological” and “unlikely to have any practical clinical applications.”

Because she feels, however, that this work might be useful to other neuroscientists, her lab has collected a number of protocols describing the proper treatment of brains in the laboratory. This document is intended as a guide to other groups who might be interested in replicating her work.

 

– Russ Hodge, 2015

 

Removal of the brain

 

  1. Open the skull.
  2. Unplug the wires connecting the brain to the eyes.
  3. Unscrew the ears (in a counter-clockwise direction).
  4. Detach the jugular and carotid vessels. The jugular is blue; carotid, red. During reinstallation, reattaching the vessels to the wrong targets will cause the person to think backwards.
  5. Rotate the brain on the brainstem approximately 90 degrees (counterclockwise) until you feel a firm “click”.
  6. Remove the brain.
  7. Don’t forget to close the blood-brain barrier: turn the wheel-shaped handle in a clockwise direction.
  8. Check the surface and interior of the skull for any flora or fauna that have crept through the ears and established colonies. Gently swab with a disinfectant to remove.
  9. Check the brainstem and apply a little water if it seems dry.
  10. Recover Q-tips or any other objects, such as pencils, that have been pushed through an ear and fallen inside the brain cavity.
  11. Store the head (and any other parts of the body, as desired) in a cool, sterile environment for potential reuse.

 

Checking the overall status of the brain’s health

 

Hold the brain between your two hands and give it a gentle squeeze. A healthy brain should have the consistency of cauliflower. Is it firm or squishy? Does it smell like alcohol, garlic, or cigarette smoke?

Which type of cheese does the brain resemble most?

  • Edam? (Healthy)
  • Swiss? (Alzheimer’s)
  • Camembert? (An undefined but clearly pathological condition)

Perform the “drop test:”

  • Hold the brain approximately 1m above a firm, flat, clean surface.
  • Drop it.
  • Measure the maximum height of the first bounce. A healthy brain should attain approximately 50cm.
  • Catch it before it rolls away.

Check overall symmetry by rolling the brain over a level surface. If the owner has worn a hat for many years, it may be squished on one side.

 

Tests of memory and basic cognitive functions

brain2

Before removing the brain, you should obtain a general sense of its overall function. Since brain functions are based on electrochemical energy, two simple tests can be performed:

 

  1. Insert a device that can deliver an electrical stimulus at various degrees of strength (taser, cattle prod) into one ear, and attach a voltmeter to the other ear. Deliver the charge and measure the net loss in voltage.
  • If the net loss is > 50%, try another brain.
  • If you detect a burning smell, lower the charge and try again.
  • Do not be surprised if the voltmeter records a charge higher than the one you delivered, especially after repeated trials. This indicates long-term potentiation.

2. Insert a USB cable into the ear and see if the brain appears as an external device on your Mac computer (OS X.7 or higher). If you do not see the “brain” symbol on your desktop, try to mount it using the Disk Utility. If this does not succeed, try another brain. If the brain is password-protected, ask the owner for permission to access it.

 

“Do’s and don’ts:”

Basic protocols for handling brains in the lab

 

If kept outside the body for long periods of time, brains should be occasionally turned to avoid bedsores.

There is anecdotal evidence that brains enjoy an occasional massage.

If the brain is to be replaced in a new body, use a powerful magnet to erase old memories. The operating system may need to be reinstalled.

Brains may be frozen. For defrosting, use the LOWEST setting on the microwave oven.

The “three-second rule:” If a brain is accidentally dropped, but picked up within three seconds, it is unlikely to be contaminated. Simply brush off any visible dirt.

The brain’s expiration date should be written somewhere on the bottom. Check the date before reinstalling a brain. A brain may be kept past this date if it has been refrigerated and does not smell. Expired brains can be fed to pets.

Meticulously record all tune-ups and repairs in the service manual, which is generally found in a pocket inside the skull near the left ear.

Do not use the brain in games of Nerf basketball or other sports activities.

Do not allow pets to play with brains.

Don’t let the brain get bitten by mosquitoes. The itching will drive it insane.

Brains sunburn very easily, so any brain exposed to sunlight should be generously coated with a sun-blocker with a rating of 50 or above.

Advise patients to get brain insurance before any procedure so that they can receive compensation in case anything goes wrong, providing they remember.

Brains often shrink slightly when stored outside the body. Upon reimplantation, use bubble packing to make up for the extra space.

If the brain seems too large for the skull upon reimplantation, use Vaseline or some other petroleum-based lubricant to ease it in.

If you have replaced a brain and notice some extra parts lying around, such as the hippocampus, just put them in wherever there is space. They will automatically migrate back to the proper position.

A reimplanted brain may need to be reanimated with an electric charge to function. Any normal taser will do. Stick the business end in one ear and deliver a charge until the patient tells you to stop.

If upon brain removal you find a computer chip or some other electronic device, you should assume that it is government property. Destroying it is a federal offense accompanied by a mandatory sentence and a fine. Get rid of it, but make it look like an accident.

If the brain belongs to a friend or acquaintance, you may be tempted to carry out some slight alterations to improve its personality. Any such measures are, of course, unethical, unless they are intended to improve the person’s singing. Do not be tempted by additional suggestions for improvements from the patient’s spouse or family.

It is illegal to sell a brain, but you may pawn it for short periods of time. Do not bet a brain in a poker game, even among members of the lab.

Don’t dress it in a silly hat, doll’s clothes, or make distasteful drawings on it with a permanent marker. Only write on the brain with an erasable whiteboard marker.

There is no evidence that when a brain is removed from the body, it can control the minds of people around it. Of course, that’s what it would want us to think.

If the brain belongs to a famous person, don’t take it out in public and show it around, especially in a bar. You may, however, do whatever you like with the body, provided it is restored to its former condition before the brain is reinstalled.

Do not stick Post-its directly onto the surface of the brain.

Do not use a brain as a Halloween Jack-o’-lantern.

Although brains are highly similar in appearance, each brain is unique and gives off a distinct smell. Train a dog to distinguish them.

A brain is not a pet. Do not try to teach it tricks.

 

Cussing in Kansas

Note: this piece continues the theme of learning the Kansas state song in the first grade, covered in an article below. In case you don’t remember, it’s Home on the Range, and the text goes like this:

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

First graders never understand the third line of our state song, but by the time you get to it you no longer care. “I’ll sing it first and then it’s your turn,” your teacher says, as if a flock of parrots has flown in and replaced her pupils. A few of us parrots put our hands over our ears. Barely 15 minutes into our academic careers, we’ve already learned a lot of interesting things : chalkboards can make a horrible screeching sound, a lot like our teacher’s singing, although not quite as bad.

“Where seldom is heeeeearrrrd a discouraging woooorrrrd,” she screeches, and the chorus, 25 tone-deaf first graders yowling at the limits of lung capacity, produces a sound that causes the fillings in your teeth to vibrate. The text is beyond us, but the last two lines were about animals, so this must be their herd. Seldom is a herd of what? A herd of buffalo?

You’d like to ask, but you’re supposed to raise your hand and now you discover you can’t. Learning the first two lines of the song has been exhausting work. There have been too many new facts, and hints that your family has been keeping things from you. Why have they never talked about Lucrezia Borgia, and all of the millions of buffalo and husbands she murdered? At home do you really speak English, or is it some foreign language? “I never want to hear the word ‘ain’t’ in this classroom,” your teacher said a minute ago. “Some of you don’t speak right. It’s not your fault, but we’re going to fix it, starting now.”

Are you one of the ones that needs fixing? Has your whole life been a lie?

You’ve made your first foray into the science of zoology, with a plan for a field study to count antelopes. And even before you’ve learned the alphabet, grammar has reared its ugly head. Buffalo or buffalos? Deer or deers? You used to know, but you’re no longer sure.

All this thinking has sapped your energy. Your brain burns up all the energy it has, then starts drawing what’s stored up in your body, even your toes, which hold only a little bit, and burns that. In just five minutes a whole day’s supply of energy has been used up, leaving your body as limp as a noodle. Only seven hours more hours until school’s out.

So we squeeze the third line through our ears and it makes a lump in our brains, like a pig swallowed by a python, in hopes it will be digested later. But that may never happen. The lump may have to be surgically removed. And some of us, tragically, may die without ever having understood the full meaning of “Home on the Range.” A brain scan of the corpse would reveal a small lump, shaped like a pig. That’s the third line of the song, which never got digested.

Usually you figure out what it means many years later, when you’re in the middle of something important and completely unrelated. You may be drinking beer while sitting in a fishing boat in your garage. Or giving a speech to the American Nephrological society. Or you’re a detective on a stakeout, wearing a walrus suit as a disguise, and that’s the moment when the moment of enlightenment strikes.

“A discouraging word,” you realize, means a curse word, or, in the first-grade venacular, a cuss word. Saying that it is seldom heard implies that Kansans don’t cuss as much as people in other states. As publicity goes, that kind of information will attract one type of person, and another will say, “No thanks, I’ll just stay in Missouri.” In the end, both states are happy.
You’d expect this claim about the amount of cussing to have some empirical data behind it, but I’ve never been able to track it down. In my experience, people in Kansas cuss plenty. Which makes you wonder how they talk in other places.

First graders in particular use a lot of cuss words, which compose most of your vocabulary, aside from a few nouns and verbs that have practical uses. You find cuss words everywhere: on the playground, or when someone injures himself, or when guys come over to watch football with your dad. Cuss words stick to you; you come home covered in them. You don’t know what they mean, but you discover that they have magical powers that make the people around you do interesting things.

Cussing takes many years to master because words have different degrees of power and affect various categories of people differently, much like pharmaceutical substances. Your mom, grandmother and minister have no tolerance at all, probably because of some immune deficiency.

The weakest cuss words are used to express pain, or in situations involving automotive vehicles: getting a parking ticket, locking yourself out of the car, or criticizing the driving of others on the road. Higher on the scale come words related to poop. Then come legal issues surrounding the marital status of your parents at the time of your birth. Close to the top are words for various parts of your anatomy, followed by the things that can be done with those parts, particularly in relation to family members or animals.

All these things are valid topics of discussion, but they’re considered uncivilized. Cultured folk have an entirely different set of words that mean exactly the same things but won’t make your mom go crazy. Why? Nobody knows. It’s magic.

First graders pick up all these words and bring them home without considering the potential consequences: embarrassment, the loss of dessert privileges, or extended periods of incarceration. But at that age you’re not even sure whether something is a cuss word; the only way to find out is to test it on your mom.

You come home from school and find her baking cookies. “Have one,” she says, and gives you a cookie. You stare up at her with big, grateful brown eyes.

“Mom?” you say.

“Yes, dear,” she smiles at you.

“What does mmm-mmm mean?” you say.

She turns pale and stares down at you, thinking, He can’t have said what I think he just said. “What did you say?” she asks, which is the wrong question, because to give an honest answer you have to say it again.

“WHAT did you say???” she says – she can’t help herself – but manages to clap a hand over your mouth, just in time. She takes back the cookie, which is unfair, and says, “I’m going to discuss this with your father.” In your family, that’s the equivalent of getting out the nuclear launch codes.

* * * * *

By the second or third grade you can usually tell if a word is a cuss word, and you’ve learned they’re about as welcome in the house as pet spiders or head lice; all three are better left in the garage. The arrival of puberty presents entirely new challenges. One is a change in the wiring of your brain, connecting it directly to your mouth, without first passing by the censorship bureau, which lies just above your tonsils. Anything in your mind, even in the subconscious part, can pop out at any moment: death threats, family secrets, and an entire reservoir of cuss words, dammed up in your brain and ready to break out at any moment.

This is also the period of your life in which for a week every summer, you’re shipped off to Scout Camp. For your parents, Scout Camp provides a brief respite from sharing their home with a person who exhibits all the symptoms of clinical insanity. For you, Scout Camp imparts the lesson that you never, under any circumstances, want to be sent to the Gulag, which is, in all essential respects, just like Scout Camp.

Scout Camp will be the subject of an article of its own in the near future. For now let me just say that you learn skills that will serve you throughout life. You learn to tie knots, in case you ever need to hang somebody. You learn how to survive in the wilderness, which is a patch of woods above the picnic area at the lake, with a pocketknife, a map, a compass, a roll of Saran wrap, and a single match. These items, used in the right order, provide a solution to any situation you’re likely to encounter. They also have many creative uses as instruments of torture.

In the Gulag, over 90 percent of the words you hear in the Gulag are profanities, so at the end of the week you’re covered with them. Combine that with the total loss of control over your mouth and you’ve got real problems when the Gulag commutes your sentence and sends you home.

You come in the door and your mom is baking cookies, and she smiles at you and says how much she missed you, and the first thing out of your mouth is a cuss word.

“One more filthy thing out of your mouth, young man, and I’m going to wash that mouth out with soap,” your mom says.
Basically it’s a dare. You don’t want to take her up on it, it’s absolutely the last thing you want to do, but your brain and mouth are not under your control. You can guess what happens next.

Your mother is a gentle soul, an angel, but her threat is absolute; it leaves no room for a retreat with dignity. She’s committed herself and there’s no going back. So she leads you into the bathroom and washes your mouth out with soap.

This is a life experience just as important as being sent to the Gulag. It gives you a chance to learn techniques for projectile vomiting, which will come in handy the first time you get drunk. If you’re not willing to zap your tongue with a Taser, soap is the only substance capable of breaking the brain-to-mouth circuitry. It activates the trauma center of your brain, which records every sensation with perfect fidelity and will replay this event when triggered by the proper stimulus. In this case, a cuss word.

For years and decades to follow, any time you start to say one, your mouth will be filled with a powerful taste of soap and cause violent projectile vomiting. You don’t even have to say the word: just thinking it will provoke the symptoms.

And it’s hard, very hard, not to think of a thing when you’re trying not to. The harder you try, the more you think of it. Even right now, sitting here writing this…

I think I’ll change the subject now.

Save the date! Science cabaret on Jan. 23, 2015, DAI Heidelberg

If you’ll be in or near Heidelberg (for example, somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy) at 8pm on Jan. 23, don’t miss my first Heidelberg performance of the Science cabaret – “The revenge of the mammoths.” An hour of stand-up comedy on the topic of the collision between science and society.

Details in German here.

Here’s the announcement in English:

Science is zooming by in the fast lane at 250 km/h, leaving most of us stuck behind a truck. Are we headed for a massive traffic jam? Or will the “zipper system” finally work? Russ Hodge, native Kansan (his parents’ fault), long-time resident of Germany (his wife’s fault), and science writer (his own fault) takes us to the edge of today’s research (and occasionally way over the edge) in a talk loaded with fascinating information. For example, the human genome is 4% Neanderthal, 14% Genghis Khan, and 48% Jim, a sheep farmer from Ohio. Random and useless facts are woven together with practical information about the Republican plan for surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, building your own anti-tornado device, and how to launch a successful Biotech start-up using only the contents of your belly-button. We’ll explore the evolution of horror films, how to distinguish true Conspiracy Theories from crazy stuff on blogs, and the search for Amelia Earhart’s DNA in the species that most likely ate her.

The talk will be held in Kansas English, refined and distilled for European consumption.