In the name of - the story behind scientific language

Materials World magazine
3 Jun 2013

There is a story behind every word we use. Professor Claire Preston of the University of Birmingham, UK, sheds light on how scientific language came to be, and the one-man word machine. Eoin Redahan reports.  

As everyone knows, the word castrensial means the measured distance between Roman encampments. In private, most of us will admit that we don’t use it as often as we should.  

Not to worry, we use a certain UK scientist’s words all the time. How about seminal and ambient? No? Permeable, technology or sterile? Still no? Okay, try hallucination, electricity, medical and oval.

Sir Thomas Browne put these words into his scientific discourses more than 300 years ago. He pilfered and twisted terms from Latin and Greek, and dug other words from antiquity, such as extinction.

He was not a notable scientist, but his contribution to scientific terminology is immense. He is 70th in the Oxford English Dictionary’s most cited sources in the English language. To put that into perspective, Sir Isaac Newton is not even in the top 1,000.

Claire Preston, Professor of Early-Modern Literature at the University of Birmingham, UK, has spent a good deal of time studying Browne’s language and that of contemporaries including Galileo Galilei and Robert Boyle.

She notes how Browne was so adept at creating new words and dusting off classical terms for reuse that Noah Webster of Webster’s Dictionary fame once wondered aloud whether he wrote in English at all. But Browne was actually one of the few academics who eschewed Latin in favour of writing in English. He wanted to communicate with the English gentry, instead of confining his works to a narrow band of scientists and scholars.

Preston explains that the scientific community’s use of Latin wasn’t an affectation of the learned. It was a way for scholars across Europe to converse in a common language. ‘There was no tradition of talking about this stuff in anything but Latin. In chemistry, for example, all the materials they were using had been written about by Aristotle, Galen and others. So they had all these terms already. It wasn’t like they were preoccupied with naming things, but those were the terms that they had, and they knew how to manipulate them. It’s not that they deliberately chose fancy words for ordinary things.’

The differing approach to university education in bygone centuries affected the way scientific language was made. Unlike many of today’s scientists, the works of Browne, Galileo and Boyle were heavily influenced by philosophy and literature. ‘Remember, these people have not gone to university and studied science (with the exception of medicine),’ Preston says. ‘If you went to university, the subjects were all to do with ancient Latin and Greek, philosophy and literature. So all of these scientists come into the world of science with a training that was not scientific.’

Prose was often florid because that was the precedent. Preston mentions that Galileo’s works even included speaking characters. This is partly because no scientific writing canon had been established – there was no such thing as a lab report.

‘Remember, all scientists in the 17th Century were amateurs and were so until the 19th Century. There was no such thing as a professional scientist. They all had day jobs or were rich enough not to have to work. Today, I think it’s very tricky to do science if you’re not in a formal setting.’

Therein lies the difference between what Preston calls the ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ – the stylists of yesterday – and the functional language of today’s professional scientists. There are notable exceptions (Preston mentions the accessibility of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s works for general readers), but the majority of scientists focus on the rigours of their respective fields rather than the colour of their prose.

That said, the language used in the different branches of science is vividly descriptive. When you skip past classical references and terms named after places and people, you find language that complements each discipline.

Preston explains, ‘Alchemy and chemistry have a very strong relationship to cookery. A lot of the chemical terms sound like ingredients, for example butter of antimony, which is antimony trichloride. Cream of tartar, which we still use in baking, is potassium bitartrate.’

She adds that the terms mineralogists use bring the subject to life. ‘When they want to talk about different layers of soil, they talk about porous, dense, intermediate soil and meagre, unctuous, intermediate soil. Or they use colours – grey, tawny soil or pale, yellow-red soil. So they’re using lots of different descriptors rather than abstract names.’

Fundamentally, however, scientific language is used to convey information. Browne may have invented 157 neologisms in Garden of Cyrus, but he wasn’t a great scientist, whereas Newton is still venerated despite his flat writing style.

Nevertheless, scientific writers could learn from the devices Browne applied to make his language more understandable to a wider audience, such as his use of doublets to make his writing clearer. To do this, he put tricky Latin terms beside their more easily understood Anglo-Saxon equivalents. That way, his readers knew that arbustetum is a thicket, noctambuloes are nightwalkers and favaginites is a honeycomb stone. So, if Browne were to end this article, he would probably do so with a punctilio – that is to say, a dot.

17th Century mythbusting
Sir Thomas Browne wrote a curious work called Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which went through six editions in his lifetime. The book, which translates as Vulgar Errors, dispelled many myths that accumulated over the centuries and persisted during his lifetime, some of which involved materials.

He explained away the dodgy ground on which various fallacies thrived, including the myth that a crystal is strongly congealed ice, that a diamond can be softened by the blood of a goat, that glass is poisonous (he fed it to his dog to disprove it), that a carbuncle (‘the best and biggest of rubies’) lights up in the dark, that a sapphire protects against witchcraft and that coral is soft underwater, but hard when it hits the air.

The work covered many other subject areas, including medicine, minerals, history and animals. Browne’s research disproved the myth that the elephant has no joints, that the ostrich can digest iron and that hanging a kingfisher upside down by its bill tells you the direction of the wind. Pseudodoxia Epidemica is free to read and download on Google Books at