Saturday 11 May 2024

How the term Scientist came to be-


Re-posted from a 2011 Post:

John Cook, at the Endeavour just wrote a nice tid-bit about science/language regarding the creation of the word scientist. I knew the story, but apparently from a flawed source as I had credited the wrong poet (I had Wordsworth... not a bad poet, but not correct) .. so I will correct my notes, and along the way, supplement John's blog with a little more interesting detail from my notes about the topic.. (I think most of this is right).
John Wrote:

For most of history, scientists have been called natural philosophers. You might expect that scientist gradually and imperceptibly replaced natural philosopher over time. Surprisingly, it’s possible pinpoint exactly when and where the term scientist was born.

It was June 24, 1833 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in attendance. (He had previously written about the scientific method.) Coleridge declared that although he was a true philosopher, the term philosopher should not be applied to the association’s members. William Whewell responded by coining the word scientist on the spot. He suggested

by analogy with artist, we may form scientist.

Since those who practice art are called artists, those who practice science should be called scientists.

This story comes from the prologue of Laura Snyder’s new book The Philosophical Breakfast Club. The subtitle is “Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World.” William Whewell was one of these four friends. The others were John Herschel, Richard Jones, and Charles Babbage.

I also found a note about what might be the first use in print.  "Interestingly, the philosopher William Whewell wrote a review of On the Connexion of the Sciences in 1834, ( by Mary Sommerville) and in the review he coined the word "scientist" as an appropriate name for a person who dabbles in experimental natural philosophy. "(*Linda Hall Org) 

John Cook was good enough to share some material from the book and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the history of science, or just a good story. This is my first read of anything by Laura Snyder, but I hope it will not be the last.

And now, here is the part from my notes which I hope adds to the story:
Whewell was also frequently in correspondence with Michael Faraday, and created the scientific terms anode, cathode, and ion. A letter between the two discussing these three terms is in the Wren Library at Trinity College in Cambridge. I have tried to capture an image below, but the library does not allow flash and the image is taken through the glass case... my apologies that it is not clearer.

In spite of its creation at such a high academic level, the word scientist was not well accepted for a long time. Its eventual acceptance came first in America, but it seems even there it encountered fierce opposition to its formal use well into the Twentieth Century. In The American Language in 1921, H. L. Mencken wrote
The last-named scientist was coined by William Whewell, an Englishman, in 1840, but was first adopted in America. Despite the fact that Fitzedward Hall and other eminent philologists used it. Despite this fact an academic and ineffective opposition to it still goes on. On the Style Sheet of the Century Magazine it is listed among the "words and phrases to be avoided." It was prohibited by the famous Index Expurgatorius prepared by William Cullen Bryant for the New York Evening Post, and his prohibition is still theoretically in force, but the word is now actually permitted by the Post. The Chicago Daily News Style Book, dated July 1, 1908, also bans it. The use of the word aroused almost incredible opposition in England. So recently as 1890 it was denounced by the London Daily News as "an ignoble Americanism," and according to William Archer it was finally accepted by the English only "at the point of the bayonet."

The term Natural Philosopher which scientist replaced had not been around long itself. Prior to the time of Galileo a Philosopher was indifferent to the observed facts, and dealt only with moral and logical theory. Galileo thought that,"The proper object of Philosophy is the great book of nature..." and not the words of other men. Eventually these new students of the "book of nature" became the "Natural Philosophers".

Despite several common assertions to the fact that Whewell coined the term in 1840,[Did they get the wrong date?... see date above in John Cook's story] the OED lists an earlier use in print, "1834 Q. Rev. LI. 59 Science..loses all traces of unity. A curious illustration of this result may be observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively. We are informed that this difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their the last three summers... Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term,..; savans was rather assuming,..; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist(***see below), economist, and atheist but this was not generally palatable."

It seems like they are talking about the same event with a different date on this article.

William Whewell is buried in Trinity College Chapel in Cambridge, UK. A memorial marker in the chapel is shown here and there is a statue in the ante-chapel

Addendum:  I recently came across notes that suggest that Faraday didn't really accept the term despite his close relation with Whewell and his public endorsement of it; "As for hailing [the new term] scientist as 'good', that was mere politeness: Faraday never used the word, describing himself as a natural philosopher to the end of his career."     It also appears he didn't like physicist, "[The new term] Physicist is both to my mouth and ears so awkward that I think I shall never use it. The equivalent of three separate sounds of i in one word is too much."  *Sydney Ross Nineteenth-Century Attitudes: Men of Science (1991), 10. 

A few years after I wrote this, Thony Christie featured a guest post on his Renaissance Mathematicus by  Dr Melinda Baldwin with lots more information.  The entire article is worthy of your reading, but I have "liberated" a few sections here:

"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."

And this which has lots of information about the 20th century use of  "scientist" even by "scientific" journals:  

"Feelings against “scientist” in Britain endured well into the twentieth century. In 1924, “scientist” once again became the topic of discussion in a periodical, this time in the influential specialist weekly Nature. In November, the physicist Norman Campbell sent a Letter to the Editor of Nature asking him to reconsider the journal’s policy of avoiding “scientist.” He admitted that the word had once been problematic; it had been coined at a time “when scientists were in some trouble about their style” and “were accused, with some truth, of being slovenly.” Campbell argued, however, that such questions of “style” were no longer a concern—the scientist had now secured social respect. Furthermore, said Campbell, the alternatives were old-fashioned; indeed, “man of science” was outright offensive to the increasing number of women in science.

In response, Nature’s editor, Sir Richard Gregory, decided to follow in Carrington’s footsteps. He solicited opinions from linguists and scientific researchers about whether Nature should use “scientist.” The word received more support in 1924 than it had thirty years earlier. Many researchers wrote in to say that “scientist” was a normal and useful word that was now ensconced in the English lexicon, and that Nature should use it.

However, many researchers still rejected “scientist.” Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a zoologist, argued that “scientist” was a tainted term used “by people who have no great respect either for science or the ‘scientist.’” The eminent naturalist E. Ray Lankester protested that any “Barney Bunkum” might be able to lay claim to such a vague title. “I think we must be content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists,” he argued. “‘Scientist’ has acquired—perhaps unjustly—the significance of a charlatan’s device.”

In the end, Gregory decided that Nature would not forbid authors from using “scientist,” but that the journal’s staff would continue to avoid the word."  

*** Sciolist..... If you recognized this term you are ahead of me...I looked it up and found:

Noun1.sciolist - an amateur who engages in an activity without serious intentions and who pretends to have knowledge
a dabbler,  a dilettante  (thank goodness they didn't use my name or picture)

[From Late Latin sciolussmatterer, diminutive of Latin sciusknowing, from screto know; (This is the same root that gives us science.)

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