Science Diction: The Origin Of The Word 'Clone'

In 1903, plant physiologist Herbert J. Webber coined the term "clone," from the Greek klon, to refer to the technique of propagating new plants using cuttings, bulbs or buds. Science historian Howard Markel discusses how the term later came to refer to a bevy of genetic manipulations.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JOE PALCA, host:

You know what that means. Time for our monthly episode of Science Diction, where we discuss the origin of scientific words with our guest, Howard Markel. He's professor of history of medicine and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and he's also a director at the center of history of medicine there. Welcome back TO SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Markel.

Professor HOWARD MARKEL (University of Michigan): Hello, Joe.

PALCA: So today's word...

Prof. MARKEL: I almost want to sing it: Send in the clone. Talk about clones.

PALCA: Clones, okay. So it's clones or cloning are we talking about?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, we'll get to that. Let's first talk about clone, which literally has its roots in the ground.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MARKEL: It came about in 1903. A plant physiologist at the United States Department of Agriculture named Herbert Webber was working on a term that would describe the process where you take a graft or a cutting or a slip from one plant and then propagate it vegetatively or asexually to grow another plant.

And he was a very literate man, Dr. Webber, and he felt strongly that words should be short, euphonious, phonetically spelled and easily pronounced and different from any other word in the language, so it would not suggest any other meaning than the one that you desired.

PALCA: Right.

Prof. MARKEL: And so he thought about it and he chose the Greek word klon. He spelled it C-L-O-N, which literally means a twig or a slip of a plant that's broken off for the purposes of propagation.

And this beat out other terms he was considering like straith, which is a combination of strain and wraith. And two other Greek works, klados and klayla(ph), which are twigs...

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MARKEL: He thought it was too clumsy.

PALCA: So how did it get from twig - I mean, where - it went beyond that pretty quickly, didn't it?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, it did and it didn't. It, you know, it became a big agricultural term for many years and it really got picked up by science fiction writers, and most famously Aldous Huxley, who wrote "Brave New World." He didn't call it cloning. He called it the Bokanovsky process.

But you may remember he took human embryos, they were split to mass produce 96 identical drones which he called gamma, delta and epsilon drones. And these drones perform menial labor for the more superior, the biologically engineered superior alpha and betas.

There are other books too. Alvin Toffler's best-selling book "Future Shock" in 1970 talked about clones, when he worried about the day that human beings would be able to make carbon copies of themselves. And my personal favorite was Ira Levin's 1976 novel "The Boys From Brazil."

PALCA: Uh-huh.

Prof. MARKEL: You may recall it was this dastardly plot to clone Adolf Hitler's remains and reproduce and raise dozens of little Fuhrers around the world. It was a huge best-seller and a popular movie.

PALCA: My favorite was Woody Allen's attempt to clone the dictator from his nose, which (unintelligible) was all was left of him.

Prof. MARKEL: In "Sleeper." That's it.

PALCA: Yes, that's right. Well, it's a complicated term. I know I came under a lot of fire for using it, or people did, you know, to refer to replicating humans because a lot of scientists just talk about it as genetic duplicates.

But we're going to have to leave the discussion there. Thanks very much for coming along and describing that to us.

Prof. MARKEL: Well, thanks for having me, Joe.

PALCA: Okay. That was - Dr. Howard Markel is a professor of history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.