The Grammarphobia Blog

Scientific methods

Q: I’ve read that the term “scientist” is only a couple of hundred years old. Is that true? If so, what were scientists called before then?

A: William Whewell, an English scientist, theologian, and philosopher, is credited with coining the word “scientist” in the 19th century. Before that, scientists were usually called natural philosophers.

In The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, Laura J. Snyder describes the birth of the word “scientist.” Here’s a summary:

Whewell, she writes, coined the word at a June 24, 1833, meeting at Cambridge University of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

After listening to Whewell lecture at the meeting on the state of science, Snyder says, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge stood up to speak.

Coleridge, who had earlier written a paper about the scientific method, said men digging in fossil pits or experimenting with electricity shouldn’t refer to themselves as natural philosophers.

Whewell agreed with Coleridge that a better word might be needed to describe the members of the association and their diverse interests. If “philosopher” seems “too wide and lofty a term,” he said, “by analogy with artist, we may form scientist.”

(Whewell is credited with coining or suggesting several other scientific terms, including “physicist,” “ion,” “anode,” and “cathode.”)

The earliest written example of the word “scientist” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1834 review—written anonymously by Whewell—of a book by the science writer Mary Somerville.

In reviewing On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences for the Quarterly Review, Whewell notes “the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.”

He adds slyly that at a meeting of the British science association “some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist.”

As for the word “science,” English adopted it from French in the 14th century, but it can be traced to the Latin noun scientia (knowledge) and verb scire (to know).

The terms “natural philosophy” and “natural philosopher” also entered English in the 14th century. The OED notes similar terms in fifth-century Latin (philosophia naturalis) and in Classical Greek (fisiki filosofia).

The dictionary defines “natural philosophy” this way: “The study of natural bodies and the phenomena connected with them; natural science; (in later use) spec. physical science, physics.”

A “natural philosopher,” as one might expect, is  an “expert in or student of natural philosophy; a natural scientist.”

The OED describes both terms as historical now.

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