Sciency Words: Alienist

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


Not every word that gets added to the scientific lexicon stays in the scientific lexicon. We’ve previously studied the now defunct terms sciential and jiffy. So now let’s talk about alienist.

This word is not, as you may suppose, related to our modern understanding of extraterrestrial aliens, nor is it related to the “people from foreign countries” definition. At least not directly. Instead, alienist is traced back to a French word, aliéné, which is an adjective meaning insane.

Both English’s alien and French’s aliéné ultimately originate with the Latin word aliēnus, and both share a certain flavor of meaning: that of “otherness.”

In a sense, you could think of insanity as a state of the mind being “alienated” from the body. Or in a more pejorative sense, the mentally ill could be seen as being “alienated” from normal society.

So an alienist (or aliéniste in French) was a physician who treated the mentally ill, and alienism was the study of mental illness. It seems these terms remained in use until the mid-20th Century, by which point this entire field of science had rebranded itself as psychology.

Fb06 The Alien Alienist

At the beginning of today’s post, I said (or rather implied) that the word alienist has become defunct. That’s not entirely true. There’s a process called semantic narrowing whereby a word with a general meaning transforms into a word with a more specific meaning. Examples include:

  • Meat: originally meant food in general but now only means a specific kind of food.
  • Vest: originally meant clothing in general but now only describes one specific type of garment.
  • Wife: originally meant any female person but now refers only to female persons who are married.

The word alienist has undergone this process as well. Today, an alienist is a specific kind of psychologist who works in the criminal justice system. An alienist evaluates the mental competency of a defendant in a trial. (I guess you could say criminals are “alienated” from the law.)

Semantic narrowing is just one mechanism of linguistic change. In a distant Sci-Fi future, it might be interesting to see how a word like alienist continues to change and what new shades of meaning it might take on.

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