How Scientific American Helps Shape the English Language

Scientific American magazine is widely recognized for its contributions to science and scientific publication. This reputation stems from the unique scope and longevity of the magazine (it’s been publishing continuously since 1845) and the diversity of its audience. It serves as a rare—even unique—meeting point for discourse between working scientists and the general public.

What’s perhaps more surprising is that Scientific American is also an influential force in nurturing the evolving lexicon of the English language. That’s not my opinion: it’s the opinion of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), widely considered the most authoritative source for the meaning, usage and history of English words—and the magazine ranks impressively high in the sources the dictionary cites as examples.

As one would expect, the OED lists the King James Version of the Holy Bible in the top 100 most-cited sources for word usage. The Bible ranks 61st, with 4,521 quotations appearing in the dictionary’s pages. But Scientific American outranks the Holy Book; it’s the 35th most frequent source for English usage, with 5,913 quotations. That puts it ahead of Time (107th), Life (134th), Mark Twain (141th), the works of Arthur Conan Doyle (591th) and Edgar Allan Poe (877th), and U.S. News and World Report (900th). (Among those ranking higher than Scientific American are the Times (of London) at number one and the prolific and masterful William Shakespeare at number two.

Why would the magazine beat out so many other stellar sources as examples of English usage? Language is by necessity fluid. Words that once thrived go extinct as new verbal species evolve that are better adapted to the endlessly changing environment of human experience. Completely unorchestrated, this essential and fascinating process of communication evolves spontaneously through the collective linguistic usage of spoken and written language, so scholars can only observe and document how the English language is used in practice over time, and record citations to word usage in dictionaries, updating them constantly. As a science and technology magazine with such a long history Scientific American has inevitably been a frequent source for new word usage among the general public—and in some cases, for words and phrases that have come and gone, as technical fields have evolved.

Some such words (and phrases), such action potential for example, (Sci. Amer. Feb. 38/2, 1983), have thrived as the advancement of science sustained them, but others, like razor paper, introduced into the lexicon to describe a new implement for wiping a straight razor while shaving, (Sci. Amer. 12 May 272/3, 1849), have been lost to antiquity. Technical words first appear in specialized publications that are read by other specialists communicating among themselves in arcane lingo, but Scientific American brings these new words into the mainstream. Whether they survive or die, words pioneering science and technology leave their imprint in the lexicon by their early appearance in Scientific American.

Examples of such technology-related words beginning with the letter “A” cited in the OED from Scientific American articles include (among others):

Aerocycle, n. A flying bicycle or motorcycle, Sci. Amer. 2, Mar 130/3, 1901.

Air brake, n. A brake operated by the pressure of compressed air. Sci. Amer. 5 Sept. 414/3, 1857.

Aircraft, n. Any of various vehicles capable of flight. Sci. Amer. 13 Oct. 27/1, 1849.

Assembly line, n. A group of machines and workers concerned with the progressive assembly of some product. Sci. Amer. July 41/1 1926.

In all, no fewer 208 usage examples from Scientific American are cited in the OED as the first evidence of a word entering general circulation, including: air brake, air cushion, animate, bleach, carburation, cartoon, clone, computing, convertible, edit, editor, gas tank, graphic, home computer, hot-air ballooning, meltdown, mileage, miniature, phone, radiator, radio, service station, stainless steel, and 183 others. In contrast, there are only 34 quotations from the King James Bible cited as the first evidence of a word in use. And no fewer than 1,054 quotations from Scientific American are cited in the OED as examples demonstrating a particular meaning of a word in the English language.

But tracking science and technology is only part of the reason, in my opinion, that Scientific American ranks so high as a source for word usage in the OED. Another is the readership of this magazine. Many other popular magazines track science and technology, but they are less frequently examples of trends in English word usage cited in the OED, because they target a different and broader group. Newspapers and other mass publications are directed to the widest possible audience, and so the articles are typically written to an eighth-grade reading level. The more highly educated and scholarly demographic of the Scientific American audience presumably makes authors less hesitant to include an unfamiliar word for fear that readers will skip over it or abandon the text entirely. Regardless of profession or level of education, Scientific American readers are curious, and when they encounter a word that is new to them, they are intrigued, not troubled, and will tend to look it up.

For example, verisimilitude, referring to something having a resemblance to reality, appears in my article published in 2016 in Scientific American MINDLearning When No One is Watching.” The word is used to describe my virtual reality experience exploring a computer-generated environment in experiments to determine how memories are formed. The first quotation cited in the OED for this word in print comes from before the Mayflower set sail for the New World, printed in the year 1603 (P. Holland, Plutarch Morals 1031). “If we wil [old English spelling] use the rule of probability and verisimilitude …” The noun, selected by my editor Claudia Wallis, was new to me, but what better word to describe the modern experience provided by the latest computer technology of 3-D virtual reality goggles? This example also shows how words born in a completely different environment can find new niches and flourish in a new environment that is completely alien to their inception.

Then too, many commonly used words from Scientific American articles are cited in the OED, not because they are technical terms, but because the word usage is exemplary. For example, usage of words beginning with the letter “M” cited in OED from Scientific American articles include (among others): mascot, mask, materialize, maturing, meaningfully, measure, mechanize, memory, menu, metabolic, metabolize, microcomputer, microelectronic, minimal, minutia, model, moderate, modify, modulate, monogamy, monster, mood, moral, mosaic, mother, motif, motivation, motor, and many more.

Language is how ideas are shared, and there is no science until the results are communicated. For that reason, fertile ground for the growth of language will always be found at the intersection between science and the arts.



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