By ContributorPublished On: December 6, 2022Last Updated: December 13, 2022
Has that thought ever crossed your mind? That learning about science is equivalent to understanding Greek? Well, you are absolutely right, because many words used in science have either Greek or Latin origins. This can make science a daunting subject, especially for those of us who aren’t linguists. Luckily, there are some tricks we can use to understand scientific jargon better.
In this article, we look at how we can make educated guesses about any new scientific jargon that comes our way based on etymology and morphology, as well as understanding the evolution of jargon. This would help both students and educators acquire science comprehension and science communication skills, respectively.
Table of Contents
Etymology and Morphology
Let’s look at the two factors which play important roles in understanding scientific language: Etymology and Morphology.
Etymology is the study of the origin of words. It allows us to learn about the history and evolution of words. For most scientific jargon, etymology nods towards Latin, previously known as the international language for Science. In fact, most books on medicine and biology were written in Latin before being translated into English for our current use. As such, many of the words we use in Science today are still in Latin.
Morphology studies the different parts of words separately: the prefix, root and suffix. We’ll look at this later to help us make better sense of scientific jargon.
When both etymology and morphology are combined with complex sentence structures in the English language, which has Germanic roots, understanding concepts with science jargon seems far from convenient. This is true even for researchers reading the works of other scientists. Thus, understanding etymology and morphology allows us to break down complex jargon into more digestible words.
Breaking Down Scientific Jargon
A Necessary Evil
As science communicators, we try to reduce our use of jargon to make science more accessible (this also helps from a SEO point of view). After all, first impressions have lasting effects, so the presence of confusing terminology often deters beginners from learning science.
However, there are times when jargon is unfortunately unavoidable. In these cases, familiarizing ourselves with scientific jargon meanings can result in a more amicable relationship with science. So, let’s dive into scientific jargon by looking at its origins and evolved meanings.
Introduction to Origins of Jargon
Typically, the first scientific concept introduced to us as primary or secondary school science students is on cells. Keywords for that chapter include nucleus, vacuole, cytoplasm and subsequently, endoplasmic reticulum and ribosomes.
This jargon gets thrown around in the classroom like a less-than-desirable game of dodgeball. But the crux of the matter is, do these jargons even have meanings or are they merely abstract names? The table below summarizes common scientific terminology introduced to students, their origins and their respective meanings.
the kernel of a nut (1700s origins)
in biology, it is the central organelle that contains genetic material
small cavity or vesicle
an organelle that contains liquid
reticulum: a little net endo: inside plasmic: plasm (old term for shape)
a little network inside the plasma membrane
therma: temperature metron: measure
an instrument to measure temperature
photo: light synthesis: to make
to make (food) using light
We can see that many scientific terms are Latin names of objects borrowed to fit their physical structure or function. It would be similar to naming a hairstyle the “bowl” haircut or naming our pet “fluffy” based on its appearance.
Evolution of Medical Jargon
An Easy Way to Categorize
As with languages, scientific jargon has also evolved alongside new medical discoveries. Sometimes, medical terminologies sound formidable, but dissecting them can reveal a straightforward description of the medical condition.
For starters, let’s look at common prefixes and suffixes concerning medical conditions. The common suffix ‘-itis’ indicates the medical condition of inflammation, while the prefix indicates the body part experiencing the inflammation. Below are some common prefixes that can be combined with the suffix ‘-itis’.
Inflamed Body Part
Common Prefixes for Body Parts
Other common prefixes usually indicate the affected organs.
skull and brains
Other Common Prefixes in Scientific Jargon
Some prefixes indicate a location or relative quantity.
isothermic: having the same temperature isotonic: having the same concentration of salts
hypothermia: having lower than normal temperature
hyperactive: more active than baseline
endoplasmic: within the plasma
exothermic: heat exiting
mesocarp: the middle layer of the wall of a ripened fruit
epithelium layer: outer layer
When we come across advice from a doctor: “Oh, you have rhinovirus infection. Please stay hydrated with isotonic fluids.”, they are really advising us to consume enough water and salts to prevent dehydration as we have a case of the viral nose infection—the common cold!
Etymology: The Origins of Jargon
Observations Within Cultures
We need to understand that science jargon existed long before our time, and the cultural context of the people then impacts the naming convention. There are two common ways in which names came about back then: (1) based on daily observations and (2) named after Greek gods and goddesses.
Another naming strategy back then, with their acute observational skills, is to name body parts after regular daily objects.
The coccyx is named after the cuckoo bird because the bone’s shape looks just like its beak.
The fibula bone is named after Latin’s fibulae, which resemble the pins used by Roman soldiers to hold their cloaks in place.
Our hamstrings are named after the string-like tendons of hanging hams (pigs) at the butchers.
The knee’s patella is Latin for ‘little plate’, a rather adorable name for a structure that functions as a shield for the inner parts of our knees.
Importance of Greek Gods and Goddesses
It was also apt that the people back then had named parts of the mortal human bodies after their Greek gods and goddesses. Iris, for example, is the goddess of the rainbow—a rather fitting choice for the many different possible colors of irises. Atlas, who held the world on his shoulders, inspired the name for our topmost cervical vertebrae, which hold our entire head.
So, while it might sound like literal Greek to you, understanding the etymology and morphology of science jargon is definitely a step in the right direction toward understanding. This online etymology dictionary is a great place to start; not only does it provide succinct information on the word you are searching for, but it also suggests related words for your reference!