Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, I bring you a new and interesting scientific word to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies. Today’s word is:
Okay, xylophone isn’t really a sciency word, but it has a sciency word contained within it. “Phone,” of course, means sound, but what about the “xylo-” part? That comes from the Greek word “xylon,” which means wood, and there are lots of scientific terms that use “xylon” as a root, especially in the study of plants.
You might remember the words “xylem and phloem” from your 5th grade science class. They’re sort of like the arteries and veins of plant biology, helping to transport water and other nutrients from the ground up to the treetops.
There’s also the term “xylophagous,” an adjective describing something that eats wood. Termites, for example, are xylophagous insects. “Xylitol” is a kind of sugar mainly found in birch tree sap, and it has the unusual property of being a sugar that is good for your teeth. We also have the term “xylophobia,” the fear of forests or of objects made of wood.
“Xylene” is a category of petrochemicals originally discovered in wood tar, hence its name. We now use it in solvents, paint thinners, and gasoline. Some car enthusiasts add extra xylene to regular gas to create a higher octane. I’ve read enough articles about how this can go horribly wrong, since xylene is a toxic and flammable chemical, so please don’t try this at home.
So the next time you hear a word with the prefix “xylo-” you’ll know what it means. It’s fairly easy to remember too, given that we’re all familiar with the humble xylophone. The only sad part is that the xylophone I had as a kid was made entirely out of plastic and therefore was not a xylophone at all.
P.S.: “Xylon” would make a great name for a race of wooden robots. They could be the low-tech counterparts to Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons.