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How The Word 'Scientist' Came To Be
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How The Word 'Scientist' Came To Be


How The Word 'Scientist' Came To Be

How The Word 'Scientist' Came To Be
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  • Transcript

In 1834, Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coined the term "scientist" to replace such terms as "cultivators of science." Historian Howard Markel discusses how "scientist" came to be, and lists some possibilities that didn't make the cut.


This week, something new. We call it Science Diction. It's a little science history, the story of how a scientific word came to be. And what better place to start off our series of Science Diction with the word scientist. How did the word scientist come to be?

Joining us now to talk more about that is my guest Howard Markel. He's professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He's also director of the Center for the History of Medicine there. And he joins us from WUOM out there in Ann Arbor. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. HOWARD MARKEL (University of Michigan): Well, thanks for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: The history of the word scientist. Scientist is not that old a word, is it?

Dr. MARKEL: No. I was really amazed. It's only about 176 years old, to be precise. It came around in 1834. And a Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science named William (technical difficulties) coined it.

FLATOW: William, again? We missed that name.

Dr. MARKEL: William Whewell. It's spelled W-H-E-W-E-L-L. And he (technical difficulties) science, and it was an early point in science, at least experimental science, when a lot of the game rules were actually being developed. So he was really quite an umpire and was consulting with people like Darwin and Faraday and a lot of other prominent scientists that we idolize today.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so how did they get around to using that word?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, no one really knew what to call a scientist. There was all these different names like cultivators of science and...

FLATOW: Wasn't there a natural philosopher used?

Dr. MARKEL: Natural philosopher, yes. And so he thought - you know, there's a lot of consilience. In other words, he came up with a lot of jumping together of all fields of science. And we ought to come up with a word that refers to all of them. And so he was actually writing in 1834. He came up with (technical difficulties) terms. The first he considered was savant, or men of learning. But he dismissed that for both being presumptuous and French. He was British, as you recall. He also considered the German term naturforscher, which is really naturalist. But he worried that some might make fun of that term, calling it nature-poker or nature-peeper. And as you just mentioned, natural philosopher was dismissed because it was simply too wide and too lofty a term.

But eventually he came up with, by analogy with artist, that they might (technical difficulties) word scientist. But he had a few qualms about that because it was close to a few other words that were not held in high regard. The first was economist. That may still be true to this day. And the other was atheist, which was a real problematic term back in those days. But he came back to it, nevertheless and he said, you know, I think this is a word, a cultivator of science in general ought to be called a scientist.

And a review of his work in Blackwell's magazine later on that year, in 1840, described it even better. They said Leonardo da Vinci was mentally a seeker after truth. He was a scientist. Well, Correggio, who as you may recall like to play with lightness and (technical difficulties) so the size of body parts, was an asserter of truth. He was an artist.

FLATOW: Hmm. How did he get to be friends with all those famous people, Faraday, Darwin?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, he was the master of Trinity College at Cambridge, so he had a very good position. He was also a fairly good scientist in his own right. He was a mineralogist. He wrote about geology. He wrote about oceanic tides, mathematics. So he was around.

And he was actually writing a book that became very well known, "The Philosophy of the Inductive Science," at this time, where he was trying to set up - how do you come up with a hypothesis? How do you prove it? Should it be universal? And you know, this all seems, you know, so basic to us today. But (technical difficulties) back in 1830s, 1840s, when real science, as we understand it, was just being laid out.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, if you'd like to talk with Howard Markel about the origin of the word scientist.

Howard, how do you come up with this stuff?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MARKEL: Well, I'm afraid to tell you because it's so easy. You may not ask me to come back. We want to look up a word, any word in English language. The best place to start is the Oxford English Dictionary because it not only gives you definitions of the word, but it tells you every point in English history where it first appeared.


Dr. MARKEL: (Technical difficulties) look it up. But that's the fun of it because you never know what you're going to find, and it's always something good, and you find all these connections. And so finding out about that scientist was a relatively new word led to Whewell's works and then it led to me finding about who his friends were and so on. I even learned that he died, unfortunately, falling off a horse at the age of 71. But it's really just - you know, you start with that Oxford English Dictionary and you're off to the races. And so, you know, it's so much fun looking up things. So I hope the listeners want to do that as well.

FLATOW: You know, it seems like there was sort of an evolution. The first words that you mentioned were - ended in ER, nature-poker, nature-peeper, natural philosopher. And now it seems like you take the words and you put an ist, scientist, naturalist, you know, biologist.

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah - biologist, geologist.

FLATOW: Yeah. They just decide, well, we're going to go with that kind of ending. We'll take the same things - the discipline that these people do, put an ist on it instead.

Dr. MARKEL: Well, what's really neat is that it all comes from the word artist. And you know, often there's great art in great science, just as there often is great science in great art. I think it's a really neat coming together (technical difficulties)...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there another source that's just as good, besides the OED, maybe other sources? I mean, there's the Internet. The Internet must serve now as a great source to find the history of all these words.

Dr. MARKEL: Well, the Internet is wonderful because once you find (technical difficulties) then you can do this on Internet, you know, services as well, then you can find the books without even, God forbid, going to the library at all. You could actually find the books on the Internet. And that's really quite easy too. So you can do it really from your home.

FLATOW: Yeah. And of course you always have to - as everything on the Internet, you have to watch out for the source, right?

Dr. MARKEL: Absolutely. You don't want to go to Bob's really cool word site as opposed to the Oxford English Dictionary. So you want to weigh your sources just as you would between bound covers. You can't necessarily judge a book by its cover, and you can't judge an Internet source by its Web page.

FLATOW: What other juicy words are you investigating?

Dr. MARKEL: We're working on a few. X-ray is really a fun term. You know, we talk about it, but where did that come from? But what would really be great is if the listeners try to come up with their own words of what they want to find out, and I'll be happy to look them up for you.

But there's so many terms in science that we can find out together, also in medicine as well. You know, the sky is really the limit. But we can find out -also fields about - for example, orthopedics, the bone doctors, you know, doctors of broken bones. That comes from bent bone, which (technical difficulties) born with birth defects.

FLATOW: We're talking - let me...

Dr. MARKEL: But one thing leads to another.


(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We're talking with Howard Markel this hour in SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. There's nothing wrong with your radio. If you hear little dropouts, that's because we're in the digital age and digital lines are sometimes a little finicky as they try to get all those packets to go through the same place at the same time and put themselves back together. So if you hear a little dropout, please hang in there with us.

And I guess new scientific terms, Howard, are always - are now being born all the time as we have new disciplines coming up.

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. You know, the technical term for that is neologism, where you combine two different (technical difficulties) to come up with a new meaning. It also, as I recall from my medical school days, is a sign or symptom of schizophrenia, so you have to be careful about the new words that you invent. But, you know, we're doing this all the time when we come up with, you know, blog, Weblog or...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MARKEL: or all these kinds of things and...

FLATOW: Tweet, tweeting, twittering.

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: But even new disciplines that were not around years ago, like nanotechnology.

Dr. MARKEL: Sure, yeah. I mean, that's what's so great. I mean, linguists always talk about how language changes with each time period, but I (technical difficulties) anywhere more true anywhere than in the world of science and medicine, yes.

FLATOW: Are there words that are just no longer used anymore, science words that were in the common vernacular that you never hear anymore?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, you brought up naturalist, for example...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MARKEL: ...which was a very popular word. I remember the first time I saw that was reading Dr. Doolittle books. I don't think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MARKEL: You may recall.

FLATOW: That's right.

Dr. MARKEL: (Technical difficulties) a naturalist. And there's all sorts of medical terms as well or spellings of terms, like surgeon, chirurgal(ph) (technical difficulties) with a C-H-I was the older term for surgical. Physic...

FLATOW: Oh, that's right. That's right.

Dr. MARKEL: But it (technical difficulties) internist (technical difficulties) specialist. You deal with the internal part of the body.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And even the spelling of things, right? Just the spelling...

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. They change too.

FLATOW: And so what's the biggest challenge then for someone who wants to follow words, for a historian? Is there - is it finding resources to find out who was first first? Because I know in science, one of the hardest things in science is when you discover who you think was the first, there's always someone who is firster before that one.

Dr. MARKEL: And I've learned (technical difficulties) historian never to say anyone was first, because I automatically get a call or an email or a letter saying no (technical difficulties) but you can get an approximation. What the Oxford English Dictionary does in terms of firsts is that they use the first time it appeared in print.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, given the state of our phone line, I don't want people to keep filling in the blanks, Howard. I want to thank you...

Dr. MARKEL: Oh, I'm sorry.

FLATOW: It's okay. Thank you very much. We're going to - we'll continue with our series of Science Diction - in fact, if you have an idea, a word you'd like to hear in Science Diction, leave a comment on our Science Diction page at We'll give them - we'll shoot them over to Howard, and Howard can help us find some words for you. So thanks for being with us today, Howard.

Dr. MARKEL: Oh, thanks so much, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Howard Markel is professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He's also a director of the Center for the History of Medicine there. And he joins us from WUOM in Ann Arbor.

That's about all the time we have for today. Surf over to our website if you want to leave us a Science Diction word while you're there. You can also look at our Video Pick of the Week. Flora's Video Pick of the Week, the red-eyed tree frog, great little frog that's shaking up the branches out there.

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Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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