The English word ‘Scientist’ – A Nineteenth-Century Coinage

In 1833 the English polymath William Whewell coined the term scientist in analogy with the word artist

As early as the Middle Ages, the term science came into English. Science is derived from the Latin word scientia, which means ‘knowledge’. In contrast to science, the term scientist appeared relatively late – namely, in the nineteenth-century. Actually, it was used for the first time by the English polymath, astronomer, Anglican priest, notable author and historian as well as philosopher of science William Whewell (1794-1866) during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1833.

At this meeting Whewell and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) took part among others. One of the points for discussion was the curious fact that there was no suitable name for ‘men’ who were committed to the systematic study of nature. (Note: In those days, there were not many female ‘students of nature’.) Whewell reported on this discussion in his anonymous review of Mary Somerville‘s best-selling science book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences:

“There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits. Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, and this was very properly forbidden by Mr Colridge, both in his capacity of philologer and metaphysician;…some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with termination when we have such words as sciolisteconomist, and atheist – but this was not generally palatable…” (Note: Whewell’s review was published in The Quarterly Review 51.1 (1834): 54-68. This part is on page 59.)

The mentioned ‘ingenious gentleman’ was, of course, William Whewell himself.

According to these lines, Whewell coined the word scientist in analogy with the term artist. Interestingly enough, this analogy might be seen, to a certain extent, in some famous works of Gothic fiction of the nineteenth-century like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

If you take into account that an artist can be regarded as a creative person or a ‘creator’, the main character, Victor Frankenstein, seems to indicate “the scientist-as-God motif” because of his ‘creation’, Frankenstein’s monster. Eventually, Frankenstein, in a way, embodies not only ‘the mad scientist’ but also a ‘tragic artist’ or ‘god that failed’.

However, let’s return to William Whewell. Although his suggesting was not generally accepted at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he employed the term scientist in his books and it soon gained acceptance.

Sources:

Gimbel, Steven. Ed. Exploring the Scientific Method: Cases and Questions. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Hannam, James. God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. London: Icon Books, 2009. 

Harrison, Peter, Ronald L. Numbers, and Michael H. Shank. “Introduction.” Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science. Eds. Peter Harrison, Ronald L. Numbers, and Michael H. Shank. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. 1-7.

Haynes, Roslynn. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Wagner, Sven. The Scientist as God: A Typological Study of a Literary Motif, 1818 to the Present. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012. 

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freedomfactsandstories

My name is Nils Zumbansen, Ph.D. I'm from Germany. The title of my blog already indicates what my blog is about. To put it more precisely, my bilingual blog covers the following topics: Western civilization, economic principles, British history, the British legal system, the concept of liberty, American politics, church history, Christianity, current affairs and the history and philosophy of science. Apart from these topics, I'm also interested in narratives and stories (i.e. literature, films and TV shows). I (will) publish my articles in English and German. // Mein Name ist Nils Zumbansen. Ich bin promovierter Anglist. Mein bilinguales Blog dreht sich um folgende Themen: Europäische und amerikanische Kultur, ökonomische Grundprinzipien, britische Geschichte, das britische Rechtssystem, Freiheitskonzepte, amerikanische Politik, Kirchengeschichte, das Christentum, aktuelle Ereignisse sowie Wissenschaftsgeschichte und Wissenschaftsphilosophie. Daneben bin ich auch an narrativen Strategien, Literatur, Filmen und TV-Serien interessiert. Ich schreibe meine Artikel auf Deutsch und Englisch.

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