Science & Technology

These 9 Everyday Science Words Have Fascinating Origins

We love words more than almost anything else here at Curiosity — anything else except for science, of course. So when a copy of Isaac Asimov's "Words of Science" popped up at the office, we couldn't have been more excited. We pulled some of our favorite words out of it and then went scouring the internet for more. These are the surprising origins of some of the science words you might use every day.

Related: Why We Love Learning New Words

Physics Words

Quark

Murray Gell-Mann predicted a set of elementary particles even smaller than neutrons and protons in 1964, and he pulled a name for them out of thin air. But he had a pronunciation first, which, he says, might have been "kwork" before he put it to paper. Then, flipping through James Joyce's dream-like "Finnegan's Wake," he found the perfect spelling in the sentence, "Three quarks for Muster Mark!" People are still arguing over the pronunciation today.

Electricity

Benjamin Franklin tends to get a lot of credit for discovering electricity, but that story is so far from right, it's not even wrong. People knew about electricity long before the United States was even a thing, and one of the earliest known examples of electricity were the sparks produced by rubbing two pieces of amber together. The Greek word for "amber"? "Elektron."

Atom

In ancient Greek days, the leading thinkers had a whole lot of ideas about how the world worked, and practically no ways to actually prove or disprove them. Some thought that matter could be split in half infinitely, but one man named Democritus believed that at some point, you'd get to a piece of matter you couldn't split. He called that piece an "atom," meaning "indivisible." Of course, now that we know about electrons, quarks, and the rest of the fundamental particles, the name is a bit of a misnomer.

Biology Words

Cell

In the 1660s, physicist Robert Hooke placed a sliver of cork under a microscope and found that the material was riddled with ordinarily invisible boxes hemmed in by tiny walls. They reminded him of the tiny rooms that monks stay in: cells. Monastery cells aren't such a big part of our lives these days, but it helps make sense of why (prison) cells and (blood) cells are homonyms.

Cancer

Ever wonder why "cancer" is both the most notorious illness in history and a constellation in the sky? It's because they mean the same thing. When legendary physician Hippocrates first described the branching tumors of deceased cancer patients around 400 B.C.E., he called them "karkinos," the Greek word for crab. About 450 years later, Greco-Roman physician Celsus drew the same analogy, but in Latin. Long story short, "cancer" and "carcinoma" both mean "crab," but come from different root languages.

Boston Red Cross volunteers assembled gauze influenza masks for use at hard-hit, Camp Devens in Massachusetts during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Influenza

"Flu" is just a nickname for that annual malady (that you should definitely get a vaccine for) — the full name, of course, is "influenza." Which is actually an Italian word meaning "influence." It all comes down to an outdated belief about where illnesses come from: the influence of the stars. Interestingly, there's a similarly pseudoscientific origin of the word "malaria," which is derived from "mal" ("bad") and "aria" ("air").

Astronomy Words

Galaxy

The word "galaxy" comes from the Greek word "gála," or "milk." Yes, even back in ancient Greece astronomers were calling the collections of billions and billions of stars that we call home the "Milky Way" for the white streak it creates in the night sky. We then just extrapolated our current word for galaxies from their specific word for our galaxy.

Sun

The Earth is in heliocentric orbit, meaning it's centered on the Sun. It's also a part of the solar system. "Helios" is the word for the Sun in Greek, and "Sol" is its Latin name. So where does "Sun" come from? Much farther north — its origins lie in Old English, instead. We might not have even brought it up except to mention "helium," which chemists once thought was only found on the Sun.

Planet

Most of the lights you can see in the night sky stay in the same formation in relation to each other — the stars are so far away that they basically seem "fixed" in the same pattern, although in reality, they are moving. But planets, by comparison, jet around the skies much faster and in much more unpredictable ways. That's why the Greeks called them "asters planetai": "wandering stars."

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Isaac Asimov's "Words of Science" might be out-of-print, but you can still find copies on Amazon. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 26, 2018

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