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The language of science

Science requires a stable, precise, unambiguous, and internationally accepted system of terms to assist understanding and communication. Unfortunately for many people these words may be hard to write, spell, read, and remember.

As the number of new disciplines multiplied, from the 19th century on, they gathered their own principles and specialist jargon. Scientific terminology, like human knowledge in general, has increased in both the number of words that it uses and the refinement of their application.

This process is best understood in terms of the historical development of science itself.

History

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.

Philosophy

Students of philosophy in the western tradition often begin their studies chronologically with the pre-Socratic philosophers. They learn that these men used a kind of proto-periodic table consisting of the four elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water to provide natural (not supernatural) explanations of the way the world worked. Another way of expressing this is to say that in their philosophising they provided explanations that depended on ‘intrinsic’ causes arising from the nature of matter, rather than ‘extrinsic’ causes generated by the gods.

Almost without exception these men also held two further fundamental assumptions about the world. Firstly, that it displayed an order (logos) that was amenable to investigation and, secondly, that the world was in a state of constant flux or change.

In all of these matters the pre-Socratics resemble today’s scientists, not today’s philosophers. We would say that the objects of their study involved geology, biology, physics, and other scientific disciplines. In other words in its early days philosophy (a word derived from the Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, or ‘love of wisdom’ and probably coined by Pythagoras) was equivalent to general knowledge about the world, this knowledge coming from any convincing source. For this reason students who are today awarded a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ come from a wide range of disciplines.

Today, looking back at the pre-Socratics, we might prefer to describe them as proto-scientists or natural philosophers.

Our modern idea of science and scientists dates back only as far as the 19th century, the word ‘scientist’ first appearing in 1834 created by the naturalist-theologian William Whewell to distinguish those who sought knowledge of nature from those who sought knowledge of other disciplines, the Latin term scientia referring to any body of kowledge that contained necessary universal terms. In other words, before this time ‘science’ simply meant ‘knowledge’ but from this point it would be more closely associated with the scientific method.

Modern forms of science developed out of philosophy or, more specifically, natural philosophy (loosely equivalent to modern physics and chemistry). Only in the 19th century did publicly funded scientists emerge who did not depend on paronage or their own resources.

Advance in all disciplines has led to increasing specialization. Many academic subjects became ‘professionalized’ following the industrial revolution. For example, historians of the late nineteenth century began to form professional groups and establish academic journals. This was no doubt facilitated by thriving colonial states that could afford support for an intellectual class seen as both serving and asserting the strength of a nation. Just as science is a process of constant revision and improvement, so history can never have just one true story. One disadvantage of the professional journal is its limited audience – perhaps in the order of 500 people though obviously variable.

Natural philosophy

Read about the history of science and the expression ‘natural philosophy’ will soon appear: it was what participants in the Scientific Revolution called themselves (the full title of Newton’s Principia was, in translation,The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). Natural philosophy is thus associated with the early modern break from Aristotle and the ancients with a new program based on observation and experiment. But in a loose sense natural philosophyit is simply speculation about nature and the Greeks had certainly conceptualized and framed the way it was studied an interpreted, most notably through Aristotle’s four (be)causes that addressed questions of motion, change, and the essential nature of objects.

The Latin phrase philosophia naturalis was synonymous with physica in the curriculum of the medieval university, so those who studied the natural world were natural philosophers. Natural philosophy was therefore the particular way of explaining the world that was used by these scholastics. And here it was Aristotle’s natural philosophy that held sway from the 12th to the 17th centuries.

There were two aspects of Aristotelian science that are often ignored. First is the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge, Aristotle’s episteme (theoretical knowledge or epistemology studied by free men of the city) and techne (how to make or do things: applied knowledge or technology which was often associated with manual labour). This was loosely equivalent in the later Latin to scientia and ars, sciences and the arts. This was the difference between explaining and manipulating nature. Part of Francis Bacon’s 17th century attack on Aristotleian scholasticism as being ‘more interested in verbal arguments than in changing nature for human benefit‘ was undermining this distinction – a distinction still continuing in the ideas of pure and aplied research. And, of course, (medieval) natural philosophy was closely aligned with theology in a way that science is not. Theology was an integral part of Newton’s world view.

It would seem that natural philosophy was not displaced but transformed during the Scientific Revolution. We emphasise the new scientific methodology that was adopted at this time but it was also a rise in the cultural status of mathematicians and practitioners of techne – those with the ability to affect change in the natural world through practical intervention – hence the mechanical philosophy that replaced Aristotelian organic metaphors. Aristotelians had been mistrustful of mathematicians because they were unclear how physical conclusions could be drawn from mathematical models.

The 19th century may be treated as the conclusion of natural philosophy, not just because this was when the word ‘scientist’ becomes accepted but because, from the 1840s on, science became a government-approved professionalized practice based in public research institutions, not just a diversion of the clergy and leasured gentlemen. The old medieval theology of natural philosophy also became unacceptable at this time as methodological naturalism became the norm in science: it was not acceptable for public scientists to publish supernatural explanations of the world. The merging of episteme with techne resulted in productive science that supported economic enterprise, improvements in scientific application indicating improvements in theories.

One interesting development of post-Baconian science is the ascendancy of practicality over theory, the assumption that techne demonstrated episteme or, expressed in modern terms, a more pragmatic or instrumental view of science … that theories are true because they work. There is the further point that though technology is clearly cumulative and progressive the explanations and theories that underpin it are not necessarily so. The prevailing view would hold that there can be no absolute distinction between observation and theory, that reasoning must have context.

Natural philosophy is generally associated with the Aristotelian ideal of science as a chain of logical deductions based on incontestable premises. We see a remnant of this in the now redundant hypothetico-deductive method thought to characterise good science. Though Aristotle’s method is now discredited it is clear that he was trying to express in logical form the perspective of inexorable determinacy of the world – which is an integral assumption of all science. The world has order – or logos as Aristotle would have said. Early scientists like Galileo and Robert Hooke described themselves as philosophers.

Natural history

Natural history was the mostly observational rather than experimental study of plants, animals and minerals, loosely equivalent to modern biology and geology. It was ‘field’ science. It had emerged as a discipline in the 16th century among wealthy dilettantes and it gathered momentum during the Enlightenment as museums, zoos, and botanic gardens were opened for the public and travel around Europe became more commonplace.

During the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries Copernicus had finally replaced the classical Ptolemaic view of the Earth as the centre of the solar system, Galileo had resisted religious dogma, and medicine had become more empirically based. Englishman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his Novum Organum (1620) attacked Aristotelian deductive logic and Aristotle’s preoccuption with final cause and teleology as the basis for scientific procedure, observation, and experimentation. Supernatural perceptions of the physical world were being discarded as alchemy was transformed into modern chemistry, numerology into mathematics, and astrology was becoming more like modern astronomy. Old ideas from antiquity – of four humours (Galen), the four fundamental earthly elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water ( and four causes (Aristotle) were being replaced by a perception of the world as mechanistic cause and effect.

Natural theology

In the 18th century there religious conflict diminished. Science and geographic exploration were exposing weaknesses in the old religious certainties.

Europeans became aware of sophisticated cultures, like that in China, that were non-Christian; the injustice of religious persecution was being questioned; humans were being perceived more as material beings and less as spiritual ones; the possibility of miracles was being challenged; explanations for natural catastrophes like floods, famines, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions and disease, were being attributed more to natural causes than supernatural ones, like ‘the wrath of God’; rock formations and fossils appeared to be much older than the age of the earth as declared by biblical teaching, the director of the Paris Museum, Buffon for example, declaring the world to be many thousands of years old while in private believing the age to be more like millions of years and likewise Georges Cuvier’s 1808 Geology of the Paris Region suggested that the Earth’s history spanned millions rather than thousands of years; the idea that each organism was individually distinct as created by God was being challenged by new ideas of organic change and extinction.
Biblical literalism, already scarred by the former Catholic anti-Copernicanism, was facing a further assault that was resulting in a change of approach as biblical accounts were increasingly treated as allegory or folk legend but with an underlying religious significance.

Religion was also adapting to the new science through the field of natural theology (loosely defined as what can be discerned of God through human reason). At the heart of natural theology was the ‘argument from design’ the belief that pattern in nature is the revelation of God’s design, an argument stated clearly by Newton in his famous Principia Mathematica: “this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being”. Science was revealing the wonder of God’s Creation. This was the prevailing view for many scientists of the age including its most illustrious naturalist Carl Linnaeus.

There were many dissenters to the new ideas. English poet William Blake (1757-1827) detested both science and natural theology, believing that the presentation of God as a kind of divine clock maker destroyed the possibility of a spiritually rewarding and loving relationship with God. The great philosophers Hume and Kant both resisted natural theology but arguments about the intricate complexity and perfection of the natural world demonstrating the mind of the Creator have remained to the present day: they convinced the early Darwin and Australia’s most eminent botanist Ferdinand Mueller, so far as we can tell, never countenanced the theory of evolution or doubted his natural theology.

Natural science

By the seventeenth century philosophy had clearly become a rather muddy word and one way out of this was through the term ‘natural science’. As another alternative a new word appeared in the late sixteenth century that was applied to people who studied natural phenomena and that was ‘naturalist’ which and another alternative ‘Natural Historian’, derived from Pliny’s encyclopaedic 37-volume Naturalis Historia (78 CE). It was only much later, in about the mid eighteenth century that usage of these expressions became restricted to people studying living and dead organisms.Only in the nineteenth century did ‘science’ arrive in genral usage and then only as an abbreviation for ‘natural science’.

A naturalist is a student of natural science.

Words

The etymology of a few of the major words we use in science can give us some insight into the evolution of scientific language.

Biology

– a term coined almost simultaneously by J.B. Lamarck (1801) and Georg R. Treviranus (1802), the latter probably the most influential with his Biologie, oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur fur Naturforscher und Artze. The term ‘biologia’ goes back at least as far as th eWolffian philosopher Michael Christoph Hanov’s Philosophia Naturalis, the third volume of whih, published in 1766, names it as the part of physics that studies living things (Hanov 1766). Lamarck had used the term in an unpublished manuscript in 1800 where he speculated about a discipline called biologie.[2]

Botany

– as ‘botanic’ dates back to Medieval Latin botanicus – herb or plant, derived from the Greek Βοτάνη – grass, fodder but used by Dioscorides to mean herbs in general and this is the probable source of the Latin term[1]

The word biology is formed by combining the Greek βίος (bios), meaning “life”, and the suffix ‘-logy’, meaning “science of”, “knowledge of”, “study of”, “about of”, based on the Greek verb λέγειν, ‘legein’ “to select”, “to gather” (cf. the noun λόγος, ‘logos’ “word”). The term biology in its modern sense appears to have been introduced independently by Thomas Beddoes (in 1799),[1] Karl Friedrich Burdach (in 1800), Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (Biologie oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur, 1802) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (Hydrogéologie, 1802).[2][3]The word itself appears in the title of Volume 3 of Michael Christoph Hanow’s Philosophiae naturalis sive physicae dogmaticae: Geologia, biologia, phytologia generalis et dendrologia, published in 1766.

Before biology, there were several terms used for the study of animals and plants. Natural history referred to the descriptive aspects of biology, though it also included mineralogy and other non-biological fields; from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the unifying framework of natural history was the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being. Natural philosophy and natural theology encompassed the conceptual and metaphysical basis of plant and animal life, dealing with problems of why organisms exist and behave the way they do, though these subjects also included what is now geology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Physiology and (botanical) pharmacology were the province of medicine. Botany, zoology, and (in the case of fossils) geology replaced natural history and natural philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries before biology was widely adopted.[4][5] To this day, “botany” and “zoology” are widely used, although they have been joined by other sub-disciplines of biology.

Garden

Perhaps we can get an insight into what a garden is by looking at the derivation of the word itself, its etymology. Peering into the distant past we find that the word ‘garden’ is of ancient origin, derived from the Old English ghordos, an Indo-European word for ‘enclosure’ from which we obtain the English words ‘yard’ and ‘orchard’. We can see this common origin in other modern European languages, the German garten, French jardin, and Italian giardino. But we can step back further in time to the Old English geard which is derived from Proto-Germanic gardaz, from Proto-Indo-European gÿórdÿos (yard, enclosure, court). From similar origins we have the Old Frisian garda, Old Saxon gard, gardo, Dutch gaard, Old High German gart (obsolete German Gart), Old Norse (Icelandic, Swedish and Danish gård), Gothic (gards). The old Indo-European root is also the source of the Latin hortus, the Ancient Greek (khórtos), Proto-Slavic gord (Old Church Slavonic, Russian (town)), Lithuanian gardas, Albanian gardh (fence).[1][2][3]

From a different linguistic route we have the ancient Persian word for ‘enclosure’ as pairidaeza, (pairi-around, daÿza-wall) translated into the Hebrew as pardes, a word encompassing both hunting parks and walled gardens and which, with the translation of the Bible into Greek, became paradeisos from which are derived the English words ‘park’ and of course ‘paradise’.[3]

From the etymology of the word ‘garden’ it is clear that, historically at least, it is the idea of enclosure that most closely captures what it is to be a garden, which is not surprising when we consider that early gardens would have needed protection from not only rain, wind, the elements and possibly other people but, more importantly, both wild and domesticated animals. Perhaps today the actual structural barrier as, say, a wall, fence or hedge, is of slightly less importance although the idea of a garden as a ‘bounded space’ remains relevant.

From the Saxon there is wyrtzerd (plant yard), wyrttun (plant enclosure, note the tun origin of ‘town’) . Also ortzerd (orchard) and wyrt or wurt as the Anglo-Saxon which derived wort as in Stonewort or liverwort.

Garden types (Latin)

We get an indication of the many different kinds of early gardens from Latin scholars in the period of the Roman Empire and after. From them we have not only the word hortus, garden (and therefore the word ‘horticulture’), but also: hortulus, little garden (the Domesday Book of 1086 mentions both); hortus conclusus, an enclosed or cloistered garden; hortus siccus, a dry garden (a collection of pressed plants or herbarium); hortus academicus, an educational, demonstration, or Botanic garden; hortus amoenus, a beautiful or pleasing garden, pleasure garden; hortus amorem a garden for love; hortus hyemalis, a winter garden; hortus academicus, an educational or university garden; then the Italian Orti agrari – economical garden.

In monastery gardens the gardener was a hortulanus or gardenarius.

While engaging with linguistics we might consider the origins of a few related words: the Latin Middle Age word herba, meaning a plant of any kind, including trees, is a word derived from herbarius (plants) as opposed to bestiaries (animals, and not to be confused with a bestiarus who was a Roman gladiator who fought animals in the arena). Note that a herber was an arbour (shelter, harbour). The word ‘botany’ comes from the ancient Greek word βοτάνη meaning ‘pasture’, ‘grass’, or ‘fodder’, although the Greek word itself is derived from βόσκειν ‘to feed or graze’ before being applied in more recent times first to the study of herbs used in medicine and then today to mean, more or less, ‘plant science’. Perhaps the Middle English word wyrt or wort, deserves a mention, familiar in names like Stonewort or liverwort.

Nature

– from the Latin natura refering to ‘essential qualities or innate disposition’ which is a Latin translation of the Greek word physis, phusis (φύσις) which Aristotle related to the intrinsic characteristics of plants, animals, and other objects, and from which we get the word ‘physics’. Our use of ‘nature’ to mean the biological word or the world as a whole is a later development. The word φύσις was first used by the pre-Socratic philosophers.

Philosophy

– from the Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, or ‘love of wisdom’ and probably coined by Pythagoras. Originally referring to all knowledge but later, as today, to non-scientific speculation.

Physics

– from the Ancient Greek φυσική (ἐπιστήμη) phusikḗ (epistḗmē) ‘knowledge of nature’, from φύσις phúsis ‘nature’

Science

Derived from the Latin scientia (knowledge) an abbreviation of the common 17th century expression ‘natural science’

Scientist

‘Science’ is a word that hybridises Latin and Greek roots. Words of hybrid composition like this were abhorrent to Latin scholars and this accounts for their being no scientists before 1833 – they were naturalists, physiologists, or physicians. The use of this term marks the declining influence of classical scholarship in the nineteenth century. We forget how important Latin was as a language of scholars. At Universities of the Middle Ages all students were expected to be fluent in Latin, the language in which they were taught.

Most popular scientific words

In 2020 there was a study of the most used scientific words published in the Scientific American magazine over 175 years.[5]

Popular words in the 19th century were “certainty,” along with “universal,” “rational” and “truth,” while “imagination,” “intuition,” “conjecture” and “interpret” peaked between the 1950s and the 1970s. Words that have persisted over time are: “average,” “exception,” “cause,” “experiment,” “observation,” “standard,” “skill” and, “see”.

Included in this article is a list of common scientific prefixes: 

a or an –    not, without, lacking
auto     –    self
aero     –    air
endo    –    inner, inside
entero –    intestine
aero     –    needing oxygen or air
anti      –    against
amphi  –    both, doubly
aqua    –    water
arthro  –    joint
auto     –    self
bi          –    two, twice, double
bio – life, living
carne – flesh
cephal – head
chloro – green
chromo – color
cide – killer, kill, killing
cyto – cell
derm – skin
di – two, double
ecto (exo) – outer, external
endo – internal
epi – above
gastro – stomach
genesis – origin, beginning
herba – plants
hetero – different
homo – alike, similar
hydro – water
hemo – blood
hyper – above
hypo – below
intra – within, inside
itis – disease, inflammation
lateral – side
logy – study of
lys – break down
meter – measurement
meso – middle
mono – one, single
morph – form
micro – small
macro – large
multi – many
pod – foot
phage – to eat
phobia – dislike, fear
philia – like
plasm – form
proto – first
photo – light
poly – many
sclera – harden
synthesis – to make
sub – lesser, below
troph – eat, consume
therm – heat
vore – swallow, devour
zoo, zoa – animal

First published on the internet – 26 August 2020

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