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:
Yeah, that’s right. I’m declaring that Sciency Words is itself a Sciency Word. It is a science-related term, after all!
Seeing as we’re about to embark on a full twenty-six episodes of Sciency Words for this year’s A to Z Challenge, I figured this is a good time to talk about why this series exists and why I think it matters. You see, I’m a science fiction writer, and I started writing this blog as a way of teaching myself about science. And the #1 problem I had right from the start was learning the vocabulary.
And it seems I’m not the only one who struggles with that. In fact, according to this paper from the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, understanding the “discursive practices of science” is the biggest obstacle high school science students have to overcome. One student is quoted in that paper saying, “Science has its own little slang to it.” And as another student said, “[Scientists] communicate with their own different words and it’s, well to me, it’s hard to like to use their words cause they’re big.”
So why do scientists insist on using such big, confusing words? Why can’t they use plain English so that everybody can understand what they’re saying? It is not because scientists want to make themselves sound smart or to make other people feel stupid (at least that’s not always the case). The problem with plain English (or plain whatever language you prefer) is that it can be a little ambiguous.
Couldn’t you just say random instead of stochastic? Couldn’t you say wobble instead of libration? Couldn’t you say forward and backward instead of prograde and retrograde? Well, no, in some contexts those words really aren’t synonymous. Those Sciency Words mean something a little more precise than their plain language “equivalents,” and that linguistic precision is really important if you’re trying to explain complex scientific concepts.
So for me, in my ongoing research journey, there’s really no way around it. I have to learn the vocabulary, and thus the vocabulary has become a big part of this blog. Because using simple words can lead to oversimplified—and woefully inaccurate—science, as I often see in the popular press. There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Albert Einstein which I think applies here: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Or as one of the students interviewed for that Research in Science Teaching paper said, “It isn’t no slang that can be said about this stuff.”
6 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Sciency Words”
I’m reminded of an interview I once saw or read of a lawyer, with the reporter bemoaning all the jargon filled language in long contracts. The lawyer’s response was that without all that jargon, the contracts would have to be much longer and even more difficult to read in order to provide the necessary clarity to the agreement. I think the same is true for scientific papers, or for publications in any field of expertise. In computers, saying DRAM or EPROM instead of just “memory” may be jargon, but those terms are each more precise than “memory” and mean different things.
That said, I think one thing fiction writers have to be careful about is how much of that jargon we let bleed through into our work. I know just in terms of blogging, I often have to gauge how specialized my language should be. Often my approach is to use the specialized word, but quickly repeat the phrase using general language, but just as often I avoid the specialized word entirely. In a fictional story, this seems even more critical. You can write fiction that only scientists can understand, but if you do, you should be aware that you’re audience will be smaller.
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Sciency Words gives me a way to use a bit more jargon on this blog than I might otherwise allow. A lot of times, if I feel like I need to use a jargon-y word, I can just link back to the Sciency Words post about it.
Even so, I agree that you don’t want to overdo it. Not for a blog post, and not in fiction either—especially not if the jargon is actually important to the plot.
Not doing A-Z myself this year, but you’re on the list for regular visiting James – looking forward to it.
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Aww, thanks! Sorry to hear you’re not doing A to Z this year, but I had to skip it last year, so I get it. It’s a ton of work, and sometimes it’s just not doable.
I’ve been out of touch lately, so I forgot all about the A-Z challenge. I’ve always wanted to do one on alchemy terms, but I don’t know if I have the time right now. Maybe I’ll peruse my alchemical texts this weekend, and if I see enough words that start with different letters, maybe I’ll go for it.
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That sounds like a fun theme! I know you have a lot on your plate right now, so I don’t want to pressure you. But if you do jump into the challenge, I’d love to read those posts!