The writing diary of a well-mellowed science writer who cares about the public understanding of science and knows the ropes. This blog bounces between my curiosity, the daily realities of professional writing, the joy of pursuing nature, and my recycling of ideas that won't be in some book or other as far as I can see, but still needed sharing. I welcome comments and suggestions! Spam will be blocked and reported. For my books, see http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/index.htm
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Thursday, 12 July 2018
The Alternative Dictionary 21
self mutilation. A
phase that some teenagers go through and grow out of, although some adults may
cut off their noses despite their phase.
study of how best to do things by halves.
to something with half an ear. This particular discipline was of great interest
to Vincent van Gogh, although he became over-qualified toward the end of his
senile. A tour of
sense of direction.
Something which people either have, or don't have. Napoleon Bonaparte lacked
this sense: he was of the definite opinion that he was imprisoned on Harris in
the Hebrides, when in fact he was on the island of Elba, showing that Napoleon
did not in fact know his Harris from his Elba.
In the passive sense, any exposure to mass media, lasting longer than 15
minutes, but especially TV game shows. In the active sense, listening to the
works of Philip Glass.
self-referenced. This is not one.
self-reverenced. See egotist.
sentiment which we do not share is called this. Any sentiment held by an enemy
is also to be seen as sentimentality, but of the sickening and cloying kind.
sepulchre. A particularly
hideous orange-brown, similar to ochre. In many parts of the world, colour
consultants go around at night, spraying sepulchre walls with white paint,
hence the expression ‘a whited sepulchre’.
serial history. The
annals of the Silk Road.
serial music. Originally
this term was used only to refer to the William
Tell Overture. See culture vulture.
This class of composition is so loathsome that listeners are generally
compelled to listen to it in small doses, once a day.
term used by sociologists to describe the stratum of society which devotes its
entire life to the observation of life at third hand through serials and soap
operas. Rather similar to the literary culture, but with marginally less
serif. A law
officer working in some of the more Hispanic parts of the United States. In
desert areas, may be replaced by a sandserif.
serious work. Any
activity, such as writing comedy, where the creative impulse tends to fall away
before the production of a finished piece.
study of unusual integer sequences, an activity to which all but the most
committed mathematicians are immune.
one and a half legs. The Sesquipedalian Festival of the Tomutu Islands is a
rite of passage, involving the surgical removal of the left leg at the knee. The
founders of the island were ship-wrecked, and kept themselves alive by eating
the lower legs of the survivors, removed by the ship's surgeon. (The surgeon's leg
was the last to go, removed by the bosun, who had observed the cutting process
very carefully, much to the surgeon's chagrin and then gangrene.) All Tomutans
above the age of fourteen are sesquipedalian.
set theory. The
philosophical underpinning of the design of scenery for film and television.
Sewers Crisis. In
some parts of Australia, sewerage theft is an increasingly common urban crime. If
it happens to one of your neighbours, you will become aware of the theft when
you hear the pitiful cry, ‘Can you tell me how long the drain's been gone?’.
sextan fever. After
practising certain enervating activities out of doors, many people sleep and
become inadvertently sunburnt in rarely exposed places. This fever arises in
about 23% of all such cases.
Irish product, based on the English Blackpool rock, but made of green sea salt
instead of sugar, and so better for the teeth, but less palatable. Its main use
is to provoke a terrible thirst.
foolish animals which give every appearance of believing everything they are
told. This is especially true of Australian sheep, explaining the common
expression ‘tell it to the merinos’. Nobody, of course, even tries to talk to
Corriedales, although New Zealanders do it all the time.
sheep husbandry. Not
what some people think at all. Rather, it relates to the science of the lambs.
used by poor people in rural Australia as a way of covering an open doorway
when they cannot afford a timber door. This is generally a matter of some
shame, and people will go to almost any length to keep the wool from the door.
shoe horn. Based
on the scythes of Boadicea's chariots, these are worn by those pedestrians at
the January sales who hope to take out their opponents by stealth. The shoe
horn is banned in most civilised sports, and also in Rugby League.
The end result of many paper clips. The paper clip life-form forages, grows,
divides and forages again, until a critical mass of clips is gathered in a
small area. Then the clips release a substance (trollin) which triggers them to gather in a large heap and assemble
themselves into the fertile breeding trolley form. Trollin is chemically very
similar to tannin, which is why so many public service offices show small and
pathetic paper clip chains, where non-critical groups have been triggered to
gather by the smell of innumerable cups of tea. It is a matter of some
embarrassment to people of refinement when the hermaphroditic trolleys engage
in mass copulations outside the food shops where tea is sold.
short circuit. An
electrical circuit which uses less wire, and so is able to carry a greater
shovel. A simple
machine with a number of uses, including its employment as a makeshift
toboggan, as commemorated in the song Shovel
off to Buffalo. Its name commemorates the famous Australian cinematographer
Charles Shovel, who filmed the Diggers in the First World War.
shower. A rude
and ungainly mob, generally sorely in need of a shower. Originally, they were
called canaille, a French term, hard
to translate, but implying that they smelt rather like a canal when the tide
had gone out. See après moi le déluge
for the origin of this mocking term. The French revolutionaries later called
themselves sans culottes, sans meaning ‘without’, and Culotte being a brand of soap, much favoured
sidewinder goat. Goats
having two legs longer than the other, so they can only walk in one direction. Named
after the directions they face when seen from the north, the long-left-legs are
the ‘East’ strain, the long-right-legs are the ‘West’ strain. As they can only
stand head-to-head, or tail-to-tail, the two varieties are biologically
isolated, and will eventually become two species, because East is East, and
West is West, and never the twain shall mate.
siege mentality. A
fairly adequate description of people who are busily attempting to perfect the
art of confused silence.
A charitable organisation named after the possibly apocryphal chamber-maid who
became hotly involved with Wagner's first score for Götterdammerung when she used it to light a fire. The society makes slow-witted but active domestic staff available, free of charge, to aspiring young modern composers,
and is a most worthwhile cause.
A kind of cake, frequently used in making Lamingtons. This form can absorb
three times its own weight in beer, and so is very popular at all-male
barbecues. Cake can take many odd forms, even to the American ‘cruller’ which
is fried. Horace Greeley, author of the line ‘Go west, young man’, was addicted
to these cakes, but he preferred them steamed, rather than fried, for he wished
to be remembered as a Horace of a different cruller.
derogatory term which is often applied to a computer enthusiast who is
particularly involved in obscure Special Interest Groups, or SIGs.
little pointy hats worn by pantomime dwarves, and hence any absurd pointy
things which are worn to create an effect.
si monumentum requiris, circumspice. An unfortunate
anti-Semitic slogan, coined by Sir Christopher Wren, and given pride of place
in St Pauls Cathedral in London. It means (in the context of converting to the
Jewish faith) ‘such a monumental requirement, to be circumcised’.
sin. 1. An
anguished cry, often emitted by tennis players. It is usually regarded as a sin
of emission, but if the cry is taken up by the player's agent, this is a sin of
commission. 2. That which theatre critics must surely be free of, in accordance
with the saying, ‘Let he who is without sin stone the cast first’.
candidates. A kind of politician
who still cannot devote a whole wit to each of the issues. In later life, as
their vision improves, many of them will be able to see in black and white.
aspect of mathematics which is so difficult that it is reserved for teaching in
portmanteau word used to describe entering in a sinful manner, or with an
overtly sinful intent.
sirens. Women who
sang on a choral reef, encouraging sailors to become wrecked there. The sirens
who protected the Golden Fleece were known as the sirens of the rams.
mechanical lifting device, used in the 19th century to assist fat people to get
from their bathing machines into the water in as dignified a manner as
skiing. A fairly
risky way of filling in the pre-après-ski time.
Skinner box. A
device used to train animals, consisting of an enclosed cage with a lever which
may be pressed to obtain a pre-determined reward, such as food, drink, or even
electrical stimulation to the pleasure centres of the brain. Some psychologists
have even used them on their own children in a study of the effectiveness of
skua. A predatory
sea bird, so-called from the fancied resemblance of its beak to a long spike.
skunk. A North
American animal which usually has a very good defence against predators, unless
it is out of odour.
are three types of sleeper: a Russian-paid spy, often from a Baltic country,
introduced into the West and left to lie low, a timber beam supporting train
rails, and also a small device placed in a newly pierced ear. Person having
their ears pierced would be well-advised to make sure that the operator knows
which kind of sleeper is which, or they may end up with a Balt hole in their
ear, or they may find themselves being rudely awakened when the night train
slide rule. A
device, originally called a slipstick, used by engineers, before calculators
were invented, to perform routine mathematical operations. Engineers were in
the habit of performing their estimates with what they referred to (among
themselves) as ‘a sly drool’. The new name for the slipstick was invented by a
quick-thinking engineer who found himself overheard by a non-engineer.
Smetana, Bedric. A
composer who knew which side his bride was bartered on.
snake religions. In
some religious communities in America, snakes are an integral part of the
worship, the snake being manipulated by the celebrant. In some areas where
snakes are uncommon, two congregations have to share a single snake, but this
usually proves unworkable, since a snake cannot be a serpent of two pastors.
in many marriages, but always performed by the other partner. Samuel Pepys once
invented a cure for his spouse's snoring, a series of half tennis balls (as
used in the vice-regal version of Royal tennis), sewn to the bed. His wife was
in the habit of removing these, and Pepys used to patiently re-attach them,
late at night, as indicated in his short-hand diaries by the key phrase
‘hand-sew to bed’.
The notion that if societies are left alone, the best ones will survive and
thrive. Nobody believes this except a few sociologists. Given the nature of
sociologists, we can probably forgive this as a form of wishful thinking, like
a tramp hoping for a million dollars. On the other hand, most people leave
sociologists alone, and they survive
and thrive. There is a lesson here.
Friendly neighbours on the upper floors in a high-rise tower. Care is needed in
such cases, for it is generally better the level you know than the one you
When they are social, a good example of a half-truth.
name given to a system of complex hand signals, commonly used by sociologists
when they are observing from behind a one-way mirror which is not completely
socket. A small
cloth item of apparel worn on only the daintiest of feet.
Socrates. A Greek
philosopher who was the hen-pecked husband of Xanthippe. Legend says he died
from an overdose of wedlock.
parts of the computer which do not break when they are dropped to shake the bugs loose. When computer
software can be shown to be bug-free, it is obsolete.
solenoid. A form
of ‘robot’ or artificial intelligence, given to solipsism.
solid state. A
term intended to describe the condition of most software developers' minds, a
task for which the term is demonstrably inadequate.
could define this, but I know you aren't really there to read it, so why should
which is dissolved. Much chemistry depends on differential solubility in
organic solvents such as alcohols, ethers and assorted liquid gums. A very
soluble solute can be dissolved in all twelve of the standard alcohols, at
least fourteen ethers, and as many as twenty of the most common gums. As a
rule, a 21-gum solute is quite rare.
a small male offspring, later a poem written by a man to a woman with whom he
hoped to beget such a result. They once consisted of a dozen lines: the present
form is solely the result of inflation. For a short period, sonnets consisted
of thirteen lines, and grew to fourteen in order to appease the superstitious. See
programs produced by developers with a drinking problem.
musical instrument based on the design of an Italian fireman's hose nozzle, the
sousaphone was only ever intended to be used in an outdoor performance of
Elgar's Pompieri and Circumstance
Overture. Unfortunately, nobody knew what the Italian for ‘firemen’ was,
and so the point was lost. Even more unfortunately, nobody knew what to do with
the sousaphone after that, but it was not
space. A useful
invention for stopping everything happening in the same locality.
Something which we could go on at great length, but it's late and there is very
little room left in this reference work.
Spam. A meat
product invented by René Descartes,
who also wrote the marketing slogan heard around the world: ‘I pink, therefore
I Spam’. He also invented the Cartesian
diver. The rumour that Spam has a shelf-life similar to stainless steel is
probably only advertising hype from the steel makers.
Spanish barber. A
person called Epimenides, who shaved all of those in the village who did not
shave themselves. It is a little-known fact that Epimenides was in fact a lady.
See Ockham's Razor for information
on the tools she employed.
speaking in tongues.
Weird of mouth.
spectral music. Many
composers and performers have explored the rainbow in their music, from Chopin
to Judy Garland. ‘Prismatic music’, has been explored by a number of parallel
composers, though with rather less success and general acclaim. The late
Viennese waltz specialist, Arnold Stone, was particularly panned by the critics
for his attempts in this style, one even going so far as to complain that
Stone's waltz did not a prism make.
essential component of civilisation, since its effective use allows people to
conceal what they are really thinking.
spell checker. An
essential part of any modern word processing package, the smell chucker well
unerringly starch oat any errors in what is hyped.
spelling. This is
claimed to be an art in which all recent school leavers are deficient. From
this, we may deduce that the Australian population is largely made up of recent
school leavers, especially in the greengrocering and sign-writing professions.
This is a subject which we will not go into in too much detail in a work which
may be accessed by children. Suffice it to say that you could not expect much
better in a profession who work nights and sleep days, and that it is not too
unlike the problem faced by Erasmus Darwin, who needed to have a semi-circle
cut out of his dining table.
sphericity. A New
Age belief that round things are good for you, which may be grounded in dubious
logic. Proponents argue that soccer players are more pleasant than Rugby League
players who use oval balls — this is a bit like saying that being bitten by
wild dogs is more fun than getting parts of your anatomy caught in a gearbox. On
the other hand, lying on warm sand makes people more pleasant and tranquil, and
so does a bubble bath (composed of spherical bubbles!). Overall, the notion is
probably no worse than any other New Age idea.
sphincter. 1. A device
like a spanner, used to tighten (sphinct) the spring on a flintlock musket. It
was later used to denote the rubber band used in a spring gun, and hence by transference, any similar ring of elastic
material. 2. A person who captures sphinxes for profit, selling them in the
sphinx. A small
animal which seems to be constructed entirely of inadequate sphincters in the
anatomical sense of the term. Sphinxes usually ask difficult questions, and so
can easily be mistaken for small children.
To be continued
Look for the link ‘Alternative dictionary’
just below this. Click on it to find the rest
of the collection.