Not Through Ignorance

Home » Etymology » Wonderful Words of Science II

Wonderful Words of Science II


nicotineThis is the sequel post to Wonderful Words of Science I, in which I cover some of my favorite derivations of words from science.  Since my starting point for most of these derivations is Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery, each term is followed by a page number that references Asimov’s book.  (Those followed by an asterisk were found in Opus 100, another Asimov work.)

Words From Chemistry

Nicotine (114).  Most names of molecules – and the addictive ingredient in tobacco is a relatively simple molecule, pictured to the right – are created from well known prefixes and suffixes (well-known, that is, to chemists) that all but imply the structure of the molecule from the name itself.  Every once in awhile, though, a molecule’s name is an eponym – it is named for some individual.  Such is the case with nicotine.  New World tobacco was sent back to Europe from time to time, at first, mostly to Spain and Portugal, the two dominant New World powers.  Tobacco seeds made their way to Paris thanks to the diplomat Jean Nicot, who was serving France’s interests in Portugal around 1560.  The French were also leaders in the burgeoning field of chemistry, which may explain how Nicot’s name came to be immortalized – notoriously.

Ascorbic acid (517).  Speaking of the early days of colonization, one of the new scourges that came along as a consequence was the dread disease scurvy, which exacted a monstrous death toll in the early days of long ocean voyages.  Two-thirds of Vasco de Gama’s crew (the first to reach India by sea) was lost to scurvy, as was nearly all of Magellan’s (the first to sail around the world).  Perhaps as many as 2 million sailors died from scurvy during the age of exploration.  Scurvy was the main threat to navies during war (not, in fact, enemy vessels), and one of the main reasons naval blockades were unsuccessful.  These deaths are all the more tragic given scurvy’s easy cure.  As first described by James Lind in 1747 (but not really heeded for another 50 years), scurvy could be prevented by a diet containing a small amount of citrus fruit.  (Because the cheapest citrus fruit in those days was lime, and because the British Navy was the first to institute scurvy prevention, British sailors, and British people generally, came to be referred to as “limeys.”  I’m not sure if that expression is insulting, but it shouldn’t be, because one could make the case that the use of limes in the diet is singularly responsible for the British Empire.)  In 1932, the preventative agent in citrus was shown to be Vitamin C, and in 1933 Vitamin C was successfully synthesized by Tadeus Reichstein and Walter Haworth (separately).  Haworth – a Brit – suggested the name ascorbic acid for the newly identified chemical, a name that translates as “no scurvy”.  That name has stuck.

Niacin (532).  Another vitamin we are probably familiar with is niacin, also known as Vitamin B3.  Lack of this vitamin causes the disease pellagra (which means “seizure of the skin” in reference to the skin lesions it causes).  When we eat niacin, it is converted into a coenzyme that is used in the Krebs cycle, an indispensable chemical reaction that fuels all our cells.  The dirty little secret about niacin is that the molecule shouldn’t be called niacin.  By the rules of chemistry, the component we need in our diet is nicotinic acid.  Now, nicotinic acid is structurally similar to nicotine, but they aren’t the same and they don’t have the same effects on the body.  Indeed, one is indispensable and the other is essentially poisonous.  But the general public isn’t particularly astute about such things; you can still find plenty of people who confuse fluorine (a deadly gas) with fluoride (an ion that prevents tooth decay) leading to all sorts of irrational arguments against fluoridated water.  In an unusual show of an intelligent understanding of psychology, the American Medical Association suggested taking the first two letters of nicotinic and the first 2 of acid to create a portmanteau (plus suffix) of niacin.

Vitamin K (538).  By the way, the whole nomenclature involving vitamins is a thorough mess.  The very word “vitamin” is a portmanteau of “vital amines.”  We eat mostly to provide our body with energy (which means fats and carbohydrates) and with building blocks for all kinds of enzymes and gene products (which means proteins).  And we need lots of those things.  But the notion that we might need certain other molecules – in trace amounts – came as something of a surprise.  At first it looked as though those trace elements all included the atom nitrogen, hence the name – “vital” as in necessary for life, and “amine” as in derived from ammonia.  Although the relationship to nitrogen was disproven very early on, the name vitamin stuck.  As research progressed, it looked like there were some fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamin A) and some water-soluble vitamins (the B-vitamins), but that story got more complicated as time went on and other letters (C, D, etc.) were added a bit willy-nilly.  Then, too, with the B-vitamin class especially it became conventional to provide a numeric subscript (niacin is B3 as we mentioned, thiamin is B1), but in order to truly be a vitamin a substance has to be necessary for life, indispensable, used only in trace amounts, and obtained exclusively in the diet.  These are difficult criteria to prove, and as a result certain vitamins were proposed and given a number that later proved not to be vitamins at all – and so we have a Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), but no B4, B8, B10, or B11.  (Note that some of the B-vitamins have the suffix -amin, indicating that some vitamins do, in fact, contain nitrogen.)  All of this messiness in the nomenclature gave Carl Dam the freedom to ignore convention and name a vitamin he discovered in 1939 Vitamin K – knowing full well no one had used the letters F, G, H, I, or J to that point.  Why stick to a convention that already had so many holes in it?  Indeed, Dam did the sensible thing – his is the only vitamin named functionally.  Vitamin K was discovered as a factor necessary for the clotting of the blood, and so the Danish scientist took the K from the first letter of koagulation, the German spelling of the vitamin’s function.

Carbohydrates (296).  I had always wondered about the term carbohydrate, because the term clearly implied water, but carbohydrates were molecules one burned (in a fire or in the body), so the name didn’t quite seem to make sense.  Carbohydrates are molecules which are made up of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, and the simple and familiar sugars of sucrose (table sugar), fructose, glucose, and lactose are examples.  It turns out that virtually all carbohydrates have 2 hydrogen atoms for every oxygen atom, which is, of course, the same ratio as in water (H2O).  The name carbohydrates then becomes quite natural – water with carbon.  The name is something of a misnomer, since there can’t really be said to be any water in carbohydrates, but water is a product of certain reactions involving carbohydrates, so it isn’t that far off after all.  The name was given to these molecules by the chemist Anselme Payen in 1834.  He had been studying the composition of wood and found that he could obtain glucose in breaking down the molecules of wood.  He named the structural compound in wood cellulose, an adjective meaning “consisting of cells” that he borrowed to serve as a noun.  At this point the sugars glucose, sucrose, etc. hadn’t been given molecular names yet, but when they did receive names, the -ose convention was adopted from the example of cellulose.

Words From Physics

AristotleQuintessence (46).  This isn’t exactly a word from physics except in the very broadest of senses.  Today, we are familiar with the idea of atoms and elements – that there are 92 elements found naturally on Earth*, and these, in combination with themselves and other elements form molecules and all of the objects we interact with on a daily basis.  (By “we” I mean all of us who aren’t subatomic physicists running experiments in particle accelerators, or astronomers catching cosmic rays.)  But this is a new view of chemistry.  For about 2200 years, give or take, the dominant view was probably the Aristotelian view that all matter was formed out of 5 elements.  These 5 elements were built in concentric circles around the center of the Earth – the elements earth, water, air, fire (exemplified by lightning), and, in the heavens, aether (from a Greek word meaning “blazing”).  Since aether was the most mysterious and the purest (given that it was associated with the heavens), the “fifth element” is the pinnacle.  The word quintessence means “fifth element”, and to say something is quintessential is to say it is the most perfect exemplar.

Gas (138).  In the 1600s, the Aristotelian view began to break down.  For example, it began to look like air was not made up of just one kind of substance, but that there might be different airs with different properties.  One thing these airs all seemed to have in common though was their lack of a form, unlike solid matter and, to some extent, liquids.  Because all vapors seemed to expand to fill their containers, regardless of the size of the container (something solids and liquids obviously did not do), they seemed to physician Jean van Helmont to be matter in chaos (from the Greek, “gaping void,” but at the time of Helmont was taken to mean “confusion”).  Helmont proposed the term chaos in 1624, but he spelled it phonetically as pronounced in his native Flemish – and the word gas was coined.

Anode (294).  In the early days of the study of electricity, of course, it wasn’t clear exactly what was occurring.  Electricity was often likened to a fluid, and there was debate about whether there were two fluids or a single one.  We now know that the movement of electrons are responsible for electric currents, but because electrons are so small and move so quickly, it took some time for this to be clarified.  In experiments in 1832, Michael Faraday worked out what are known as the laws of electrolysis (electrolysis is used to break materials apart by passing currents through them; the chemist Humphrey Davy had used this technique to discover the alkali metals of the Periodic Table).  Current was passed though materials from one electrode to another.  Electrode means “road of electricity”.  Electricity, by the way, comes from the Greek word elektron which refers to amber – and rubbing amber is a means of producing static electricity.  As anyone who has hooked up a battery knows, current flows from one battery terminal to the other.  Making use of the flow of fluid analogy, Faraday called one terminal the anode (high road) and the other the cathode (low road).  Unfortunately, these terms are misleading.  Fluid would flow from the high to the low, but electrical current flows from the cathode (low) to the anode (high) – it is the cathode which is the negative terminal, and it is the negative terminal which has the excess of electrons.  Faraday’s mistake is hardly his fault.  For one, he was following a suggestion made by Benjamin Franklin, and for another, one can hardly blame Franklin – without the proper technology to investigate the matter, it was a fifty-fifty guess.  What is interesting is that these bad guesses have been maintained even today, and circuit diagrams are written with the mythology that current flows from positive to negative.  From a practical standpoint, this makes no difference – but it is curious!

Quantum (415).  Modern physics began in 1900 with Max Planck’s explanation of black body radiation, a description that would lead to the theory of quantum mechanics.  A black body is a theoretical material that absorbs all electromagnetic radiation, and therefore will give off all EM radiation if heated.  Planck’s equations required energy to be given off as individual units.  The size of these units, he predicted, depended on the wavelength of radiation (larger units for shorter wavelengths).  The idea that energy was given off in pieces rather than continuously begs the question “how much?” which is the translation of the Latin word quantum.  Planck’s constant is a fundamental property of the universe that defines the “graininess” of the universe – this may be a completely obtuse analogy but I think of the universe as being pixelated in Planck’s view.  In any event, Planck’s answer to “how much?” is “not very much at all” – the grain of the universe is extremely fine, and as a result we can model most physical events disregarding the graininess of the universe until we start dealing with subatomic events.  What I find humorous about that is that quantum mechanics therefore generally only applies to very, very small things – yet we have an expression, quantum leap, that might be translated as “a huge step forward”.  This is a bad translation.  A better one is a step that is qualitative rather than quantitative – something that occurs in such a way that the old rules don’t apply.  This is consistent with Planck’s notion that action in the universe isn’t continuous but jumpy.  It only seems continuous from a distant-enough point of view.

Proton (461).  Electron is derived from elektron, the Greek word for amber, as noted previously (see anode).  The second subatomic particle named was the proton by Ernst Rutherford in 1920.  Proton comes from the Greek protos, meaning “first”; Rutherford added the suffix -on to be consistent with electron (the suffix -on originally came from ion, a charged particle).  Rutherford believed (and was correct) that the hydrogen nucleus (a single proton) was the smallest possible atomic nucleus, it was therefore the “first” that all others are built from.  Atoms are, of course, composed of protons, electrons, and neutrons, but the latter weren’t conclusively identified until 1932 because, as uncharged subatomic particles, they were not perturbed by electric fields, then the best means of seeking subatomic particles.  Neutron, of course, is named consistently with proton and electron by adding -on to the root of “neutral”.  Given that the -on suffix originally derived from ion, though, the word could humorously be translated as “uncharged charged particle”.  One final note – the suffix is -on, but since electron and neutron both have an r in front of the -on, one might mistakenly think the suffix is “-ron”.  This appears to have been the mistake that led to the (mis)naming of a subatomic particle discovered in 1932, which was as massive as an electron but carried a positive charge.  This particle was named the positron by discoverer Carl Anderson, though the name positon or even anti-electron was probably more defensible.  On the other hand, Anderson is a Nobel Prize winner, and I’m just a NeuroProf, so what do I know?

Words From Astronomy and Earth Science

MarsMartian canals (367).  I think I was familiar with the canals on Mars from science fiction before I realized that they had an origin in actual astronomical observations.  In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli took advantage of an unusually close alignment of Mars and Earth (which happens every 30 years) to study the surface of the red planet.  Schiaparelli noted several thin, dark lines coursing over the surface of Mars, which he imagined might contain water.  He therefore named these features canali, which is the Italian word for channels, a word used on maps of Earth to signify a narrow waterway (the English Channel being, perhaps, the most recognizable to the English-speaking world).  Schiaparelli was wrong about the existence of waterways, but given the distance of Mars and the quality of telescopes in his time, this was not an egregious error.  After all, we still speak of “seas” on the moon – such as the Sea of Tranquility where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed – and no one is confused about the poetic license at play.  But in Schiaparelli’s case, the mistake was magnified when canali was mistranslated to the English-speaking world – not as channels, which are natural waterways, but as canals, which are manufactured waterways!  For 75 years or so, the prospect of an intelligent civilization on Mars was taken seriously in some quarters, and the mistranslation of Schiaparelli’s work must have played some part.  Although you can still find ancient aliens stupidity on the internet, the main lasting effect of this was probably a boon to the world – that is, the many wonderful stories written during the Golden Age of Science Fiction (the 1940s) dealing with a populated Solar System.  (See: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.)

Tectonic (580).  The theory of continental drift was originally inspired by noticing that the coastlines of distant landmasses (such as Africa and South America) seem like they might fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.  Eventually it was determined that large plates existed which did seem to abut one-another at fine joints.  These plates were given the name tectonic plates in appreciation of the fineness with which they fit together – for tectonic means “related to construction” and descends from a Greek word, tekton, meaning carpenter.

Monsoon (171).  In 1686, Edmund Halley – he of cometary fame – wrote a book that included a world map in which he recorded the prevailing winds in each location at various times of the year.  While winds may be somewhat chaotic there are strong tendencies to blow in a particular direction (seasoned sailors made it their business to learn the trade winds), but the direction of the winds may also vary with the season.  Halley might be considered a founder of the science of meteorology.  The Arabic word for seasonal wind is monsoon.

Meteor (*54).  I had always wondered whether there was a relationship between the word meteor and the word meteorology.  It seemed impossible that there was no relation, and yet meteorology had to do with the Earth’s atmosphere, and meteors came from outer space.  But the Greek word meteoron means “thing high up” which makes sense for both.  Still, Asimov suggests an even tighter connection than this – meteors are atmospheric phenomena in this sense: they become visible shooting stars only when the friction of the atmosphere causes them to heat up dramatically.  Additionally, both the Greek astronomers and the early Christian astronomers maintained an assumption that the heavens were perfect and unchanging, so that meteors, which were unpredictable and transient, must be atmospheric phenomena entirely.

Admiralty-Arch1Words From Mathematics

Decipher (*94).  Okay, make that Word (singular) From Mathematics.  But it’s a good one.  In his book Realm of Numbers (excerpted in Opus 100, where I came across it), Asimov is explaining the importance of the number zero.  If you learned Roman Numerals in grade school like I did, you learned I, V, X, L, C, D, and M, and if you know them really well, you can read the copyright date at the end of movies.  We learned that 20 was XX, that 203 was CCIII, and that 230 was CCXXX.  There was no need for a symbol for zero.  Numeric systems all over the world used symbols like this, and zero had never been needed and never been invented.  But then people began to have to not just count, but do math – add, subtract, multiply, divide.  Imagine doing long division with Roman Numerals – not easy.  It was probably the Hindus who invented the zero, but the west learned of zero through the Arabs.  Zero at once opened up the possibility of place values in a numeric system, which dramatically eases calculations.  Indeed, one might say that many formerly inscrutable problems became resolved thanks to zero.  The west happily got rid of Roman Numerals (except for monument builders and film producers) and switched to Arabic Numerals – including the special one, zero.  The word zero comes from the Arabic word sifr.  From this word we also get the word “cipher” which we use to mean a symbolic code.  And to decipher something is – to resolve a formerly inscrutable problem.


*Above, I wrote “that there are 92 elements found naturally on Earth,” but that’s not true.  The truth is that uranium, which has atomic number 92, is the heaviest element that is found naturally on earth (although I have also read that plutonium’s half-life is long enough that trace amounts still exist in nature).  However, not all of the elements lighter than uranium exist naturally – technetium (atomic number 43) has no stable isotopes and, although it may have once existed on Earth, its half-life is short enough (just over 200,000 years) that none of it exists here now.  It can, however, be created by nuclear reactions carried out in a laboratory, and was first identified that way in 1937.  In fact, that’s where technetium gets its name – technology is required to create it.  There, a free derivation in a footnote, and a free preview of the third and final Wonderful Words of Science episode, all about the Periodic Table.




  1. […] they appear in the hardcover version of his book.  I plan two sequels to this post.  The first, Wonderful Words of Science II, will discuss Words from Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics, and the second, Wonderful […]

  2. Aristotle was wrong about so many things, it’s a wonder he is still referenced with respect rather than being consigned to the pile of ancient eccentrics. One of the lasting bits of misinformation we can lay at his feet is the notion that we have five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. There are many more senses possessed by humans, including equilibrioception (balance), thermoception (temperature), chronoception (time passing), kinesthetic perception (where your body parts are located relative to the world) and pain. That raises the number of senses to at least ten. Some research suggests that humans may also have a very weak perception of magnetic fields. We can certainly detect electrical fields of an appropriate intensity, such as those that build up around the house or during thunderstorms. Some senses are associated with certain sensory organs, while chronoception and kinesthetic perception tie in deeply to how the brain perceives the world. In any case, Aristotle was wrong — as usual.

    • NeuroProf says:

      To give Aristotle his due, though, it might be worth mentioning that in 350 BC, he summarized the reasons why he believed the world was not flat but spherical. These included: 1) as one moves north, stars rise about the northern horizon and sink below the southern; 2) the shadow of the Earth on the moon is a edge of a circle, 3) ships sailing to sea disappear hull-first and sail-last. Aristotle was by no means alone among the ancients to appreciate that the world was round, but in any event, he got that one correct. Aristotle, and the Greeks generally, never perfected the experimental method, and as a result, their ability to get things right was severely hampered.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: