Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Don't Believe a Scientist (When They Try to be a Linguist)

When it comes to their particular area of discipline, scientists who otherwise masticate the English language quite sloppily [1] will turn prescriptivists. The sad thing is that they're often wrong to do so. Here are some examples that I've accumulated over the years. It usually starts out with the scientists co-opting a colloquial word and giving it a more precise definition within their discipline. Then they turn around and try to pretend that the previously existing definition is in error and that all uses of that particular word must conform to the recently restricted definition of their jargon.

  • Original: A fruit or seed with a hard or leathery shell enclosing a relatively hard edible or oil-yielding kernel; the kernel itself.[2]
  • Botanical: A hard, indehiscent, usually one-seeded fruit, often surrounded by a cupule.[3]
The botanist will try to tell you that an almond isn't a nut, it's an "edible seed of a drupe". At best they'll let you say that it's a culinary nut. Hogwash. An almond is a nut, but not a botanical nut. Theirs is the more recent and restrictive definition; theirs must be clarified, not the original.

  • Original: Any small globular, or ovate juicy fruit, not having a stone.[4]
  • Botanical: A many-seeded inferior pulpy fruit, the seeds of which are, when mature, scattered through the pulp; called also bacca.[5]
The botanist will try to tell you that a strawberry isn't a berry, it's an "aggregate accessory fruit". At best they'll let you say that it's a culinary berry. Hogwash. A strawberry is a berry, but not a botanical berry. Theirs is the more recent and restrictive definition; theirs must be clarified, not the original.

  • Original: Vegetable products in general, that are fit to be used as food by men and animals.[6]
  • Later: The edible product of a plant or tree, consisting of the seed and its envelope, esp. the latter when it is of a juicy pulpy nature, as in the apple, orange, plum, etc.[7]
  • Botanical: the ripe pistil containing the ovules, arrived at the state of seeds.[8]
The botanist will try to tell you that an apple isn't a fruit, it's "carpels surrounded by a fused hypanthium".[9] At best they'll let you say that it's a culinary fruit. Hogwash. An apple is a fruit, but not a botanical fruit. Theirs is the more recent and restrictive definition; theirs must be clarified, not the original.

  • Original: The state or condition of being dedicated or devoted to a thing, esp. an activity or occupation; adherence or attachment, esp. of an immoderate or compulsive kind.[10]
  • Psychiatric: Immoderate or compulsive consumption of a drug or other substance; spec. a condition characterized by regular or poorly controlled use of a psychoactive substance despite adverse physical, psychological, or social consequences, often with the development of physiological tolerance and withdrawal symptoms; an instance of this.[11]
The psychiatrist will try to tell you that compulsive gambling isn't an addiction, it's a "psychological dependence". Nonsense. Compulsive gambling is an addiction, but not a substance addiction. Theirs is the more recent and restrictive definition; theirs must be clarified, not the original.

  • Original: The action of wintering, or passing the winter, esp. in some suitable place or condition.[12]
  • Later: The dormant condition into which many animals and plants pass when the temperature falls below certain limits; esp. the winter sleep of some warm-blooded animals, as the dormouse, hedgehog, badger, bear, bat, etc.[13]
  • Mammalogical: The physiological state where the body temperature drops to near ambient temperature, heart and respiration rates slow drastically, the animal appears to be in a deep sleep, and cannot be aroused by external stimuli.[14]
The mammalogist will try to tell you that a bear doesn't hibernate, it "goes into a state of torpor", "dens", or "experiences winter lethargy". Nonsense. A bear hibernates, it just isn't an obligate hibernator. Theirs is the more recent and restrictive definition; theirs must be clarified, not the original.

  • Original: A name given vaguely to various insects, esp. of the beetle kind, also to grubs, larvæ of insects, etc.[15]
  • Entomological: Applied to insects of the order Hemiptera or Heteroptera.[16]
The entomologist will try to tell you that a rolypoly [17] isn't a bug, it's a "terrestrial crustacean". Nonsense. A rolypoly is a bug, but not a Hemipteran bug. Theirs is the more recent and restrictive definition; theirs must be clarified, not the original.[18]

  • Original: Full of meaning or import; highly expressive or suggestive.[19]
  • Statistical: Of an observed or calculated result, such as the difference between the means of two samples: having a low probability of occurrence if the null hypothesis is true.[20]
The statistician will try to tell you that the events in your life that have profoundly influenced you aren't significant, they're just "personally meaningful". Nonsense. Profound moments are significant, just not statistically significant.[21] Theirs is the more recent and restrictive definition; theirs must be clarified, not the original.

  • Original: The mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing; firm trust, reliance, faith.[22]
  • Statistical: The particular probability used in defining a confidence interval, representing the likelihood that the interval will contain the parameter.[23]
The statistician will try to tell you that your trust in your data isn't confidence, it's just "a personal belief in the reliability of your results". At best they'll let you say that it's a personal confidence. Nonsense. Your belief in what you've done is confidence, just not statistical confidence. Theirs is the more recent and restrictive definition; theirs must be clarified, not the original.

There are, however, cases where a truly scientific term has been adopted and adapted by the masses to mean something not allowed under the original definition.[24] For example:

  • Original: The process by which molecules of water or another solvent tend to pass through a semipermeable membrane into a region of greater solute concentration, so as to make the concentrations on the two sides of the membrane more nearly equal.[25]
  • Colloquial: The gradual and often unconscious assimilation or transfer of ideas, knowledge, influences, etc.[26]
Then we have the messy case of:

  • Original: A four-footed reptile of the order Chelonia, in which the trunk is enclosed between a carapace and plastron, formed by the dorsal vertebræ, ribs, and sternum; the skin being covered with large horny plates, commonly called the shell.[27]
  • Now: Any terrestrial species of turtle (i.e. Family Testudinidae).[28]
  • Original: Any species of marine tortoise (i.e. Family Chelonidae).[29]
  • Now: Any member of the order Testudines.[30]
  • Original: A name given to one or more species of North American turtles.[31]
  • Now: A turtle living in fresh or brackish water.[32]
As you can see, tortoise used to describe all such animals, but now only describes those found exclusively on land; turtle used to describe only those found in the ocean (i.e. sea turtles), but now describes all such animals; and terrapin used to describe only certain species found in North America, but now describes all those (regardless of which continent they're endemic to) that inhabit freshwater.

One more scenario that I think is worth mentioning. What is the plural of octopus? You might be inclined to say octopi. A scientist might correct you and tell you that octopuses refers to many such creatures of the same species while octopi refers to many such creatures of different species. Well, both are wrong. The word octopus is Greek, not Latin, so it would properly be rendered in the plural as octopodes. Even if it were Latin, it would be octopedes. So to say the word octopi in any context is bad English, bad Greek, and bad Latin.[33] Just stick with octopuses and you'll be fine.

Now for a concluding (and mitigating) thought. The English language is constantly evolving. For something to be considered a word, people simply have to use that word. For a word to have a particular definition, people simply have to use that word in that way. Ultimately the dictionary, snobby scientists, snobby linguists, nor snobby bloggers dictate what is or isn't a word or what a word does or doesn't mean—you (collectively) do.[34]


[1] For example, many of them will use the word glom to mean alternatively "to pick or scoop up" or "to stick to" (e.g. "I glommed some bacteria onto a toothpick" or "the bacteria will glom onto the inoculating loop"). The word actually means "to steal". This is probably a corruption of the word glob.
   Another example is their pronunciation of the word processes. It should be pronounced PRAH-sess-ess (mouse over for IPA) if you're American, or PRO-sess-ess if you're from the British Commonwealth. But many pretentious scientists pronounce it PRAH-sess-EEZE. However, this would imply that the singular form of the word is processis, not process. Take home message: the word processes should be pronounced with the same vowel as the ending of the words successess and recessess, not like the vowel in theses or prostheses or hypotheses.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary, nut, n.1 and adj.2 def. A.I.1.a.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, berry, n.1, def. 1.a.

[5] Ibid., def. 2.

[6] Oxford English Dictionary, fruit, n., def. 1. By this definition the tomato, the jalapeño pepper, the banana, etc. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berry#Botanical berries) are also considered berries.

[7] Ibid., def. 2.

[8] Ibid., def. 5.

[9] I guess that means if you find a tiny fly in your bushel of apples, you have to call it a carpels-surrounded-by-a-fused-hypanthium fly, not a fruit fly.

[10 Oxford English Dictionary, addiction, n., def. 1. By this definition okra, green beans, cucumber, vanilla, and black pepper are also considered fruits.

[11] Ibid., def. 1b.

[12] Oxford English Dictionary, hibernation, n., def. 1.

[13] Ibid., def. 2.

[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hibernation#Obligate hibernators.

[15] Oxford English Dictionary, bug, n.2, def. 1.

[16] Ibid., def. 2b.

[17] See a rotational ambigram I made of the word rolypoly here (scroll down).

[18] You'll also catch them telling you that you can't call the little critter that's red with black spots a ladybug. According to them it must be called a lady beetle or a ladybird beetle. It's okay. Just call it a ladybug. In England they call it a ladybird, but if the anthropologists and ornithologists had their way we couldn't use that name because they're not ladies or birds.

[19] Oxford English Dictionary, significant, adj. and n., def. A1.

[20] Ibid., def. 5.

[21] For a clever take on this, see http://xkcd.com/539/.

[22] Oxford English Dictionary, confidencen., def. 1.

[23] Ibid., def. 11.

[24] Some cases I've discussed previously include the commandeering of the words organic (see this post) and flu (see this post).

[25] Oxford English Dictionary, osmosisn., def. 1.

[26] Ibid., def. 2.

[27] Oxford English Dictionary, tortoisen., def. 1a.

[28] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tortoise.

[29] Oxford English Dictionary, turtle, n.2, def. 1a. This originally arose as a corruption by English sailors of the French word tortue ("tortoise") which was assimilated to the English word turtle-dove.

[30] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtle#Turtle, tortoise, or terrapin.

[31] Oxford English Dictionary, terrapinn., def. 1a.

[32] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrapin.

[33] For more info on this, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octopus#Etymology and pluralization.

[34] A few cases where the masses have used a word in such a way as to overthrow the dictionary meaning, include the word moot (originally meant "arguable" but now is almost exclusively used to mean "inarguable" or "not worth arguing") and the phrase begs the question (originally meant "a type of logical fallacy in which the matter to be proven is assumed in the premise" but now is almost exclusively used to mean "raises the question" or "prompts the question").