One last dividend from the Winchester book (which, thankfully, I’ve now finished)—a word I hadn’t run across in the OED or anywhere else, and am very glad to know about:

drogulus /ˈdrɒɡjʊləs/

Etymology: Coined ‘on the spur of the moment’ by A. J. Ayer perh. by subconscious association with dragon + L. –ulus as in dracunculus.

An entity whose presence is unverifiable, because it has no physical effects. Also transferred.

1957 A. J. Ayer in Edwards & Pap Mod. Introd. Philos. 608 Suppose I say ‘There’s a “drogulus” over there,’ and you say ‘What?’ and I say ‘Drogulus,’ and you say ‘What’s a drogulus?’ Well I say ‘I can’t describe what a drogulus is, because it’s not the sort of thing you can see or touch, it has no physical effects of any kind, but it’s a disembodied being.’
1959 L. S. Penrose in New Biol. XXVIII. 98, I had difficulty in finding a suitable name for the activated complexes produced in these experiments. On showing one of them to Professor A. J. Ayer, I inquired whether it perhaps might be a ‘drogulus’… He replied that it was undoubtedly a ‘drogulus’.


  1. “A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

    Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

    “Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle—but no dragon.

    “Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

    “Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

    You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

    “Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floates in the air.”

    Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

    “Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

    You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

    “Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

    And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

    Carl Sagan, natch. —But I’m also reminded of a Doonesbury stip from the last time it was mourning in America: “Bartender! There’s a bear in my beer!”

    An incredibly useful word. Thanks ever so.

  2. aldiboronti says

    Philosophical article on verificationism here, in which Ayer’s drogulus is mentioned.
    “As a result of this definition verificationism appears to deny that certain sentences that might commonly be considered to have meaning do in fact mean anything. Ayer’s example is that of the Drogulus; he suggests that it would make no sense to say to someone that there was an invisible, intangible, impotent (and in fact in every way undetectable) monster called a ‘Drogulus’, and that one was standing right behind them. According to the verificationist this is meaningless, since the supposed existence of this creature has no effect of the world, and in fact makes no difference to anyone whatsoever.”

  3. i’d started using “drogulus” to refer to what are known as internet “pop-ups”, but only because i like the word & i’m never going to introduce it in conversation with the other meaning…

  4. Drogulus – an entity whose presence is unverifiable, because it has no physical effects. A remarkably useful term which nicely describes the help desk at my local tax office.

  5. Hey, y’all dissing transubstantiation? And the essence/ accident distinction? A little more of that, and the stake awaits you….
    NOBODY expects…..
    AMONGST our weapons….

  6. Oh wait, I forgot I was a heretic…. I don’t mess with the theology part much, I pretty much specialize in devastating the hapless imperial armies.

  7. I’m reminded of Twonk’s Disease, which is incurable and has no symptoms.

  8. I’ve got that.

  9. Another one!!!
    …Yet no product on earth is as abstract, boundlessly complex and flexible as software. It cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched and is, to borrow Nabokov’s description of chess – a game invented in India – a “spectral art.”…
    (From this interesting post)

  10. John Cowan says

    Daniel Dennett refers to these as “epiphenominal gremlins” when he is trying to explain the peculiar way in which many philosophers use the word epiphenomenon: it means something (in particular a thought) which does not and cannot affect anything in the visible world. In short, consciousness has no effect on behavior.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Nor behavior on consciousness. Except of course for the behavior of behaviorists, which is cunningly calculated to have an effect on consciousness. To this end they publish books with titles like Consciousness Explained.

  12. John Cowan says

    Perhaps they do, but Dennett is no behaviorist (“Skinner made up his throat that he had no mind”), but a physicalist (“The mind is what the brain does”).

    As for the gremlins, they are designed to dismiss any wholesale dismissal of verificationism. Gremlin Hypothesis #14 from Dennett’s qualia paper tells us “that there are fourteen epiphenomenal gremlins in each cylinder of an internal combustion engine. These gremlins have no mass, no energy, no physical properties; they do not make the engine run smoother or rougher, slower or faster. There is and could be no empirical evidence of their presence, and no empirical way in principle of distinguishing this hypothesis from its rivals [#12, #13, #15 …]. By what principle does one defend one’s wholesale dismissal of this nonsense? A verificationist principle, or just common sense?”

    Dennett’s rhetorical opponent Otto then says that obviously the gremlins are just made up, whereas the theory of qualia has been around since Plato or whoever. Dennett retorts that if people had believed in the gremlins (as they did in phlogiston) since the 18C, and it turns out that there is no evidence of their existence, does it really make sense to say that they exist but are epiphenomenal?

  13. Fixed Tatyana’s link and was glad to be reminded of this useful word.

  14. (The Winchester book was The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary; see this angry post.)

  15. David Marjanović says

    By what principle does one defend one’s wholesale dismissal of this nonsense? A verificationist principle, or just common sense?


    Dennett’s rhetorical opponent Otto

    What, the one from A Fish Called Wanda? 😀

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    I think this drogulus is what in English we call a Straw Man.

  17. Well, what some of us call a strawman, those who have not been infected by the other sense ‘trial balloon’, which seems to be dominant. “The proverbial man of straw” pops up now and again, though he is not the subject of a proverb.

  18. @John Cowan: The OED has, as its second definition of proverbial:

    Used or referred to in a proverb or idiom; familiar or current as a proverb; notorious, well known, especially so as to be stereotypical.

    There are cites going back to 1816 (“The honesty of the Swedes is as proverbial as that of the Highlanders of Scotland”) in which it is clear that the meaning is the “notorious, well known, especially so as to be stereotypical” one, with no actual specific proverb or aphorism involved.

    The development of the sense away from referring to literal proverbs (or even Proverbs) can actually be traced through the OED cites. The earliest is 1571 and refers specifically to biblical figures as “proverbyall.” The next, from 1589, relates to a non-biblical but fixed expression. The 1711 cite does not refer to any specific text, but only speaks of something “which is so true, that it is almost Proverbial”; obviously, no specific textual reference is needed, because of the “almost.” The last cite before the 1816 one above has the ambiguous, “A Jack of all Trades, is proverbial of a bungler.”

  19. Well, I’m glad there’s a history to it, though I think the last example you give is bad, because there is a proverb “Jack of all trades is master of none” which is alluded to, though the word “bungler” does not appear in it.

  20. Lars Mathiesen says

    I read a letter to the editor today, commenting on an article about two life-size statues of angels. The commenter wanted to point out that ascertaining the live size of angels was a breaktrough on many fronts, so how large were these statues actually?

    The disappointing answer was of course that they should have written people sized.

  21. Heh.

Speak Your Mind