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How we got the word ‘scientist’

The word ‘scientist’ is so common and seems so appropriate now that it seems hard to imagine that it is not only of relatively recent coinage but that its introduction was controversial for almost a century. I came across an interesting article that outlined the history of a disputed term that has now become a coveted title.

It was coined in 1834 by academic William Whewell, who worried that the fields of chemistry, mathematics, and physics were spreading apart and that there was need for a term that would emphasize their commonalities.

He then proposed “scientist,” an analogue to “artist,” as the term that could provide linguistic unity to those studying the various branches of the sciences.

Most nineteenth-century scientific researchers in Great Britain, however, preferred another term: “man of science.” The analogue for this term was not “artist,” but “man of letters”—a figure who attracted great intellectual respect in nineteenth-century Britain. “Man of science,” of course, also had the benefit of being gendered, clearly conveying that science was a respectable intellectual endeavor pursued only by the more serious and intelligent sex.

“Scientist” met with a friendlier reception across the Atlantic. By the 1870s, “scientist” had replaced “man of science” in the United States. Interestingly, the term was embraced partly in order to distinguish the American “scientist,” a figure devoted to “pure” research, from the “professional,” who used scientific knowledge to pursue commercial gains.

“Scientist” became so popular in America, in fact, that many British observers began to assume that it had originated there. When Alfred Russel Wallace responded to Carrington’s 1894 survey he described “scientist” as a “very useful American term.” For most British readers, however, the popularity of the word in America was, if anything, evidence that the term was illegitimate and barbarous.

Opponents in the UK included Thomas Huxley and the prestigious journal Nature avoided using the term until 1924, as did the Royal Society of London, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution, and the Cambridge University Press.

Comments

  1. AsqJames says

    For most British readers, however, the popularity of the word in America was, if anything, evidence that the term was illegitimate and barbarous.

    I wish I could say that this particular brand of ignorant bigotry is now less common over here, but sadly I think the truth may lie in the opposite direction.

  2. Funkopolis says

    My old Latin prof taught us that the reason the term was so despised was because it was an uncouth mix of Latin and Greek. (“It should be scientOR!”)

    Apparently, classicists went through the same thing with ‘television”

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