Sciency Words: Zettatechnology

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


There’s a process in linguistics called semantic generalization, whereby a word that means something specific evolves into a broader, more general meaning.  This seems to be what happened to the word nanotechnology.

American engineer Eric Drexler is often credited for coining the word nanotechnology.  For Drexler, the word referred to nano-scale robots that could grab atoms and assemble them into molecules for us: whatever molecules we wanted, whatever molecules we could imagine!

But this idea soon came under assault from two sides.  On the one side: the public and elected officials who became increasingly nervous about the grey goo scenario, another term Drexler gets credit for.

And on the other side: specialists in Drexler’s own field who liked the idea of nano-scale technologies but didn’t think nano-scale robots could ever really work.

So Drexler’s colleagues took the word he created and started using it to mean other things: things that seemed more feasible to them and that the public would find less scary.  In other words, they semantically generalized nanotechnology.  In this article from, Drexler has this to say about what happened:

I never expected that a bunch of researchers would pick up the label nanotechnology, apply it to themselves, and then try to redefine it.  That’s a shock, and it has led to a tremendous mess for everybody.

So Drexler lost his word, and as a result federal funding for nanotechnology research (as Drexler defined the term) went to other things that now also fell under the (now larger) nanotech umbrella.

Having coined not one but two new science-related terms, Drexler now came up with a third.  What he originally called nanotechnology he now started calling zettatechnology.  As explained in this news stub from AZoNano:

Since a micro-sized product of future molecular manufacturing techniques is likely to have around a sextillion (1021) distinct atomic parts [Drexler] has based the name on the prefix of that number—“zetta”.

I like this word.  Who doesn’t like words that begin with the letter Z? Unfortunately, this one doesn’t seem to have caught on.  This isn’t the first time I’ve profiled a word that didn’t quite make it. After all, the process of linguistic evolution is as much about the words that fail as the words that succeed.

Next time on Sciency Words, what do you call it when a moon has a moon?

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