The Grammarphobia Blog

“Criminalist” vs. “criminologist”

Q: I was delighted to see my question about the use of “woman” as an adjective appear on your blog, but I must point out that I am a criminalist, not a criminologist. A criminalist is a practitioner of criminalistics, the specific term for forensic analysis of physical evidence, such as trace evidence, DNA, and unknown substance identification. The word is not used very often outside the field, and most people just use the less specific term “forensic scientist.” I am in practice an analytical chemist, and actually know very little about criminology!

A: Oops! As you can see, the blog entry (“Strictly a female female”) has been fixed. Thanks for the correction—and the education!

Interestingly, the word “criminalist” used to mean someone versed in criminal law or a writer on criminal law, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has citations for this usage going back to 1631, but the last one was in the late 19th century.

The first citation for “criminalistics” is in An Introduction to Criminalistics (1949) by Charles E. O’Hara and James W. Osterburg. The English term comes from similar ones in other European languages, according to the authors.

The OED’s earliest reference for “criminology,” the scientific study of crime, dates from 1890: “We share Dr. Topinard’s dislike of the term ‘criminal anthropology,’ and may adopt the term ‘criminology’ till a better one can be found.” I guess a better one never came along!

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