A Word Coined: What I learnt today

Today in an atheist women’s group, someone mentioned the origin of the word scientist.  I didn’t doubt the writer, but reading up on the back story was worthwhile.

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a Scottish science writer and polymath, at a time when women weren’t allowed to attend universities due to male insecurity (see also: Mary King).  Somerville was fortunate to come from a well-to-do family and had access to mathematics and books, as well as formal education in Latin and other languages.  She was self-driven and educated, read and wrote scientific books and papers, translated scientific works of others (including Newton) and was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society on her own merits.

Prior to 1834, people were called “cultivators of science”, “natural philosophers” and other wordy or awkward terms.  Lexicographers needed a simpler word.

How The Word ‘Scientist’ Came To Be

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.

[. . .]

[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: 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.

Somerville was the first person to be described as a scientist in a publication.  Granted, timing had a lot to do with her being the first, but the quality of her work stood on its own and she deserved it.

Google Doodle for Mary Somerville: Woman on whom the word “scientist” was coined

Google has dedicated a Google Doodle to honour Mary Somerville, Scottish scientist renowned for her groundbreaking science papers. Somerville has the distinction of being the first female author to be published in the Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest science publication that is active till today. February 2nd marks the date when in 1826 the UK’s National Science Academy — the Royal Society of London — read her papers on experimental physics.

[. . .]

Somerville’s book The Mechanism of the Heavens, released in 1831, shattered many myths prevalent in those times regarding the solar system. This laid the groundwork for her groundbreaking book – The Connection of the Physical Sciences, which became among the highest-selling science books of the 19th century after its release in 1834. Astronomer John Couch gained a lot of clues in his discovery of the planet Neptune from the third edition of her book that released in 1836.

A reviewer first coined the word “scientist” after reading about the underlying links between different sciences as revealed by Somerville in her book, Connection.



  1. Jazzlet says

    That is cool.

    Mary Somerville also had a college for women named after her, founded when it was not possible for women to get degrees from Oxford, in 1879. As well as being for women it was non-denominational, you had to be Church of England to get an Oxford degree as well as male

  2. says

    I’m kind of loving the accidental apocryphal suggestion that the term goes back to one Sir William Technical-Difficulties. Very Python. Of course THAT name sounds like the originator of engineers moreso than scientists…