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Origin of the Word Scientist

June 17, 2010

Scientist is a very common word these days and I myself work in the field of mixed territory of science and engineering. Everyone knows the meaning of the word-from a layman to a scientist. But for the heck of it, let’s see what various dictionaries have to offer.

According to Merriam Webster:

Main Entry: sci·en·tist Pronunciation: \ˈsī-ən-tist\ Function: noun Etymology: Latin scientia Date: 1834

1 : a person learned in science and especially natural science : a scientific investigator

According to

–noun an expert in science, esp. one of the physical or natural sciences. Origin:
1825–35; < L scient (
ia ) science + -ist

So, if you look into various other dictionaries inlcuding Oxford you will get similar defintion of the word, nothing that exciting about it. But what I found interesting is the year of the origin of the word. It’s very recent- sometime between 1825-1835 it was coined and started being used for defining people who worked in the field of science. Oxford dictionary mentions the year against each word which tells the year when the word was first cited or used in a print, and for the word scientist the year is mentioned as 1834. Till now I thought the word must have been used for centuries, my guess was the Renaissance period, but I was wrong, it’s just 176 years old! So now the question comes who coined the word and what was the word used before scientist came into existence.

So here is the story. The word was first coined in 1833 by Cambridge University Philosopher of science and historian William Whewell and then published for the first time in 1834 in Quarterly Review. Prior to 1834, “Natural philosophers”, “Men of Science” or “Cultivators of science” was used to describe group of people who practiced science. He came up with this word because he thought the words like philosopher was not suffcient to generalise complete gamut of new emerging field of sciences unless used with some prefix word such as natural philosopher or experimental philosopher and so on. First few words he came up were savant, men of learning and naturforscher (German for naturalist).  Then someone suggested to him or he came by himself with the analogy of the word artist. Ho toyed with this analogy for sometime, but was little apprehensive of using a word which sounded similar to economist and atheist, not very popular words those days and had negative connotations attached. But ultimately he decided that scientist should be the word to describe people who pursued science. Another interesting thing to notice here is that prior to word scientist being popular, most of the names ended with er– astronomer, philosopher, naturforscher but after word scientist became popular words like biologist,  geologist, physicist became a trend. So that’s the word of the day- scientist.[ Wikipedia , NPR ]

We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist. [Whewell, 1840 ]

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