What’s in a name? Etymology of 13 Scientific words

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Everyone and everything we know has a history. A wooden table was originally part of a tree, a colorful butterfly used to be a revolting caterpillar, and the entire cosmos was perhaps once a single, concentrated point with a bright future.

Words too have their linguistic histories. Several of the names assigned to various mathematical quantities, scientific principles and phenomena were created from verbs and adjectives that date back to the days when Greek and Latin were the languages of learning in the Western world. Many of these scientific words have a historical or mythological aspect to them.

Examining the etymology of such words may or may not enhance our knowledge of that object or phenomena, but the nature of their origin directs us to the mindset, limitations, and challenges of that era. We discover new stories behind the old, accustomed names, just like the charm we find in revisiting familiar places with new eyes after spending some time from them.

Here are a few examples of such words:

13. Electric

The word electric was first used in English in the 1600s. This name was derived from the Greek word for amber (electrum), a substance that was known to attract bits of paper when rubbed with wool.

12. Composite

Derives from a Latin verb (componere), which means, “to assemble together”. The prefix com- means “together”. Ponere means “to place”; it is also the root for the word ‘position’.

11. Gravity

The persistent pull we experience is from Latin (gravis) “heavy”; the same root gave us the adjective ‘grave’, to describe any emotionally heavy moments and moods.

10. Vulcanization

A chemical process that is used to create durable materials by transforming polymers. This is typically carried out by the addition of sulphur.

In Roman mythology, Vulcan is the god of fire. It is also the origin for volcano, the ‘burning mountain’.

9. Photolithography

A chemical process used in microfabrication to transfer patterns from a mask to a sample. Its name derives from a word (lithos) for stone. Lithography, therefore, means writing with stone, and photolithography refers to writing with light or photons.

8. Gadget

Gadget was originally a slang word in the nautical realm; sailors used it for any mechanical object that they did not have or could not remember the name of. The etymology of this word is not settled but many believe it derives from a French word for a firing mechanism (gâchette).

7. Division

The least favored mathematical operation amongst beginners in elementary arithmetic, originated from a Latin verb (dividere), which means, “to share”.

6. Algebra

A broad field of mathematics, originated from an Arabic word (al jabr) that means “reunion (jabara in Arabic) of broken parts”; the same root also gave us ‘algorithm’.

Interestingly, the ‘restoration’ quality of algebra was used in the 15th and 16th centuries in a literal sense for describing “the treatment of fracture”.

5. Vector

In the field of linear algebra, an alphabet is crowned with an arrowhead to denote a quantity that has a magnitude and a direction; it is called a vector. This name is derived from a Latin word (vehere) for ‘to carry or convey’. In addition to describing such driven alphabets, this Latin word is also the root of ‘vehicle’.

4. Calculus

A Latin word that originally meant a small pebble because it was used for calculations. Calx means limestone, hence calculus has also been used in dentistry to refer to deposits on the teeth and in medicine to denote kidney stones (calculus in the kidneys), a painful experience for some, just like calculus in its mathematical sense, which includes the concepts of integration and differentiation.

3. Trigonometry

A branch of mathematics that describes the relationship between the angles and sides of triangles. Its name originated from a Greek word (trigonon); triangle, the star of this territory of mathematics, is also derived from the same root. Tri- refers to “three”. The word gonia means “angle or corner” and is related to “knee” probably because of the angular form of bent knees. The word metron means “a measure” and is also the root of meter.

Goniometer, then, not surprisingly is an instrument that is used to measure angles.

2. Equation

Originates from a Latin word for equal (aequare). It is a word that immediately suggests a balance in an expression describing a chemical reaction or a mathematical principle. It is therefore interesting to note that it was first used in English in the context of astrology in the late 14th century by people who believed that the everyday lives of insignificant creatures in a small planet are fascinating enough for the entire cosmos to take an interest. We have come a long way since then, and now, equations are reputable (and, sometimes daunting) expressions.

1. Revolutionary

As a final reflection on the origins of names relevant to the sciences and mathematics, let us consider the word revolution. Presently, we use the word “revolutionary” to imply something that is drastically new or different, typically in a positive light. It might then be surprising to find that the origins of this word lie in astronomy and astrology. It derives from a Latin word (revolvere), which means “to revolve”. Copernicus used it to describe the motion of the planets around the sun, a theory not readily accepted at the beginning (making his treatise “revolutionary” in the modern sense of the word too). Next, the word made its way into the language of astrologers who claimed to be able to predict the deterministic future, particularly those of generals and princes. They used “revolution” for any dramatic and unexpected episodes in the affairs of humans, in direct contrast to the initial application of the word in the field of astronomy, which suggested consistency and order in the movement of the planets.

The names we have seen, and many others that we have not considered here, are mostly remnants of words from the antiquated languages of learning. These names are then verbal time machines, sending us back a few centuries, sometimes showing us the links between two seemingly detached words, and forming a multidisciplinary bridge between history, linguistics, and science.

What’s in a name then? There is namon (Proto-Germanic), namo (Old High German), nomen (Latin), onoma (Greek), naam (Dutch), noma, nama (Old English), nama (Sanskrit), nam (Persian), namo (Old Saxon), and perhaps many others; regardless, it is still a name by any other name.

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