Up to the seventeenth century educated men were called philosophers, those concerned with living organisms being known as natural philosophers. However, by the seventeenth century ‘natural philosophy’ had become a muddy term that was replaced by the expression ‘natural science’ which, in the nineteenth century was abbreviated to ‘science’. So, the separation of science – the establishment of ‘science’ (so named) as an independent mode of investigation – did not occur until the 18th century when it was distinguished as a discipline distinct from natural philosophy. Most of the many disciplines of science that we know today arose in the nineteenth century. ‘Natural history’ refers more to field science, an expression used in the 16th century by wealthy dilettantes that became more popular during the Enlightenment.
We use the various words denoting science, scientific disciplines, and scientists without realizing the historical period when they arose and were in greatest use, and how their meanings might have changed.
For the ancient Greeks science was any theoretical or systematic study with no inconsistency in speaking about the science of ethics or theology. The language we use today when thinking about scientific questions is mostly a construction of the seventeenth century and the scientific revolution that was underway at this time. I have compiled a simple glossary to cover some of the major words and their historical context.
The word ‘science’ has itself undergone changes in meaning and use over time. The following account examines this history in the English language, it has followed slightly different paths in Italian, French, and German.
The idea of a universally accepted scientific language had to confront the difficulty of the many different European languages. This problem was overcome during the early modern Scientific Revolution of the 16th century by the adoption of Latin as the universal language of science, law, and administration – although some scientists published their work in both their native language and Latin.
Scientific journals also began in the 17th century Royal Society of London, one of the world’s oldest scientific societies, made nullius in verba (‘take no-ones word for it’) its motto after it was established in 1660.
As Latin slowly lost favour, it was the politically powerful countries that were most scientifically active whose languages dominated scientific discourse. French became popular and, in the late 19th century, German.
In recent years English has been the preferred language for research papers, no doubt a consequence of changing power politics and the 19th century domination of Britain over much of the world over the years of its empire, followed by the strong influence of English-speaking America.
According to Why English Matters, 98% of scientific articles today are published in English which has become the international language of scientific and political communication.