English is optional dep’t

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Say what?

They are the ear-wrenching, jaw-jangling junk of the scientific world, the poly-syllabic, hexa-enjargonated children of the refereed journal. Cobbled higgledy-piggledy, these stacks of Greek and Latin roots are primed with prefixii and capped with suffixii.

Some of these mongrelized mutants say the uber-obvious: Does “biomedicine” not equal “medicine”?

More of them seem to say the obscure, redundant or ridiculous, like “biomolecular medicine.” Eh?

Old illustration of bull, ram, boar and man, depicting constellations

Did ancient civilizations follow astrolacism to find their way around? Photo: Gerard Mercator

You don’t need much experience reading science to adopt a love-hate relationship with the incessant onslaught of obscurity: Some of these terms, like “decadal mean,” (average temperature during a specific 10-year period) have real utility and no synonyms, and you’d best learn them and soldier on.

Others seem mainly designed to serve as scientific ownership flags staked by the first to discover a phenomenon — whether it’s actually new or not.

In honor of a great term

Don’t get us wrong: To science, jargon is no less essential than measurement or theory. It allows quick, precise communication. (Imagine having to say, “the addition of hydrogen” every time you meant “hydrogenation,” or “related to quick movements of chunks of Earth’s crust” instead of “seismic.”)

But we Why Filers are not the only scientific tourists who think the enjargonators have run amok. Not every new concept needs a new term — let alone several new terms that precipitate a scientific row over who got there first.

Very young baby lying on stomach on pillow staring at an iPad screen

Evidence of early-onset electrostatic compulsion? Photo: Steve Paine

And at a time when record numbers of people communicate in English, and that well-known tongue is the standard language for many scientific papers, why must every new hunk of jargon originate in Greek or Latin — or preferably both?

We could go on to decry the esthetic obnoxion of fabrications like “pharmacological,” which often could be replaced by the rather simpler “drug.”

Enough whining. We must move to today’s challenge:

Real, or really ridiculous?

Below, we’ve briefly defined some scientific jargon. Please tell us which are real, and which we concocted.

Positive “JargoPro” points are awarded for obscurity, over-reliance on Greek and Latin, length (measured in syllables), a grating quality on the ear, and esthetic points for excessive use of linguistic force.

Negative “JargoCon” points go to ease of pronunciation and a heightened chance that mere mortals may comprehend and even pronounce the term.

Pharmaco-optimalic: Real Or Fake? SelectShow
Pharmaco-optimalic (concerning the visual presentation of drugs)
JargoPro: Nice use of multiple obscure roots; ambiguity (does “optimalic” refer to a state of mind, or to optics)?
JargoCon: Rather straightforward pronunciation.
Phyto-viability: Real Or Fake? SelectShow
Phyto-viability (ability of soils to promote plant survival)
JargoPro: Incorporates the Greek “Ph” phoneme instead of the more familiar Anglo-Saxon “f”; also grating on the ear.
JargoCon: Use of hyphen fosters understanding; perilously comprehensible to the one percent who recognize “phyt” as the Greek root for “plant.”
dried, brown and wilted fern plant in black pot on wooden shelf

Did this plant succumb to poor phyto-viability or just neglect? Photo: pete_pick

Electrostatic compulsion: Real Or Fake? SelectShow
Electrostatic compulsion (gravitational pull between silicon-powered screens and human minds)
JargoPro: The adjective seems familiar, but is tantalizingly obscure.
JargoCon: Condition is so common that readers may jump to the correct conclusion about meaning, always a negative to a jargoneer!
Stoichiometry: Real Or Fake? SelectShow
Stoichiometry (related to the proportions of chemical elements in a chemical reaction)
JargoPro: Symmetrical, reverse-reiteration of “oi” as “io”; essentially unpronounceable.
JargoCon: Fundamental concept, so the term may be necessary.
Polymorphism: Real Or Fake? SelectShow
Polymorphism (taking several different shapes)
JargoPro: Elegant concatenation of the Greeks: “poly” (many) and “morph” (shape).
JargoCon: At four syllables, syllabically deficient, thus impairing incomprehensibility.
Two colorful birds sitting on tree branch, one with black face and one with orange face

Are the differently colored heads of these gouldian finches an example of polymorphism or did one just get into the hair dye? Nigel Jacques

Astrolacism: Real Or Fake? SelectShow
Astrolacism (use of stars as fixed points in geography)
JargoPro: Suffic-ates with the opaque “-ism”; exploits confusion between astronomy and astrology.
JargoCon: Some people will understand “astro” as related to astronomy, and therefore stars.
Longitudinal: Real Or Fake? SelectShow
Longitudinal (variations over time)
JargoPro: Easily dropped into an otherwise-comprehensible sentence; also may confuse geographers who think it refers to imaginary, north-south lines on maps.
JargoCon: Easy to pronounce, so long as you catch the soft “g”
Gastrophrenology: Real Or Fake? SelectShow
Gastrophrenology (study of the correlation between microstructures in the small intestine and surface of the cranium)
JargoPro: Strong reliance on dead languages for roots; induces guilt — is this something your doctor warned about last year?
JargoCon: Although “phren” is satisfyingly opaque, “gastro” may give away at least part of meaning.

– David Tenenbaum