12 July 2021

The Origin of Words: Interesting Examples from Science and History

The Origin of Words- Interesting Examples from Science and History

The history of language is endlessly intriguing, and we have explored it in many previous posts (take a look at this fascinating cluster of articles). In this article, we want to dig out the magnifying glass and zone in on the special terminologies of science and history.

Many words from history – especially military history – have their roots in Latin, while the Ancient Greeks, famous for their love of philosophy, drama and mathematics, have gifted us with many of the words that contribute to our scientific lexicon. Don your spectacles (from the Latin spectaculum – a form of specere, meaning ‘to look at’), pull on your lab coat (laboratory also has its roots in Latin – from labor, meaning ‘to work’) and come with us into the lecture hall…

Those Warring Romans

As Thomas Hardy said, “War makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading.” History is chock-full of wars and much of the lexicon comes from Latin. You only have to take a look at this list of Latin inscriptions, many of them military, to understand why the Roman army – organised, disciplined, well-paid and well-fed – was virtually unstoppable for centuries.

Here are some common words from the history of warfare:

  • Army – from the Latin armare, ‘to arm’
  • Battle – from the Latin batuere, ‘to beat/knock’
  • Revolution – from the Latin revolvere, ‘to turn/roll back’

The Greeks’ Thirst for Knowledge

The Ancient Greeks left us an impressive legacy in the field of science, with famous figures such as Pythagoras, Aristotle, Archimedes and Hippocrates immortalised by their contributions, many of which are still relevant today.

As for scientific terms still used in many (usually European) languages today – well, we are spoilt for choice. Here are a few of our educational favourites:

  • The word ‘mathematics’ is from the Greek mathēma – the root word of manthanein, ‘to learn’.
  • The term ‘chemistry’ has a particularly interesting backstory that is still discussed today. The word evolved from the term ‘alchemy’, and scholars have suggested that this term can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, which was called the land of chem, meaning ‘black soil’ (the fertile soil by the Nile river). However, the Greek word for alchemy, khemeia, means ‘pour/cast together’ and could be an alternative root for the word. Wherever the word truly originated, scientists started using the term ‘chymista’ in 1530, and the word ‘chemistry’ evolved from there.
  • Ancient Greek gifted us with the ‘ologies’, from -logia, meaning ‘the study of’ – for example, biology (study of life), cosmology (study of the universe), anthropology (study of mankind) and geology (study of the Earth).

Those clever Greeks also left us the dubious legacy of phobias, from phobos (meaning ‘fear’). As well as the commonly known ‘agoraphobia’ (fear of open or crowded places – in Ancient Greece, the agora was a public space for assemblies or markets), ‘claustrophobia’ (anxiety in small or crowded spaces) and ‘arachnophobia’ (terror of spiders), there are also some rather unusual phobias out there. Cryophobia is a dread of ice, frost or cold; nephophobia is a fear of clouds; alektorophobia affects people scared of chickens; and pogonophobia afflicts people with a grave aversion to beards.

The Personal Touch

Of course, many words in science are named after famous scientists and are the same in any language. Here are some popular examples:

  • Braille – a form of writing created using raised dots that could be understood by the blind, Braille was named after Louis Braille (1809–1852), a blind French teacher who started developing this system of writing when he was only 15.
  • The Bunsen burner – a favourite of school science labs, the Bunsen burner was named after German chemist Robert Bunsen (1811–1899), who nearly killed himself with arsenic in experiments (and may have only contributed to the development of the Bunsen burner in a minor way!).
  • Pasteurisation – the effect of heating a substance to kill microbes that cause contamination, pasteurisation was discovered by French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) in 1857. This discovery had the added bonus of saving the wine and beer industries from collapse due to contamination during export – fantastique!
  • Petri dish – the iconic circular flat dish used for growing bacteria for experiments, the Petri dish was invented in 1887 by German microbiologist Julius Richard Petri (1852–1921).

Conditions are also often named after the scientists who discovered them, and they remain the same in different languages too. For example:

  • Parkinson’s disease (named after James Parkinson, author of the 1817 paper ‘An Essay on the Shaking Palsy’)
  • Alzheimer’s disease (named after Alois Alzheimer, who first reported publicly on the disease in 1906)
  • Asperger’s syndrome (named after Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger, who described what he called ‘autistic psychopathology’ in children in 1944)


Learning a foreign language makes you appreciate the similarities and differences between languages, and science and history employ many words with a Latin or Greek root that occur in similar forms across many European languages. If you would like to learn another language – European or otherwise – please do get in touch to discuss your requirements.

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