The Social Life of Nomenclature (2011)


Where do words come from? Especially Science words?

Does there exist an international board of science nomenclature somewhere? Does this board sit at a table, test and prod and finally, approve new words that precisely and exactingly describe physical phenomenon? Is there an ISO standard for creating new language from observable novel phenomenon? As it turns out, there are many boards and many standards. They overlap and disagree. But there is not ONE board of scientific nomenclature. The practice of science is always more disheveled than we give it credit for.

All humans use the scientific method. Sometimes. In parts. When it suits us. When we are not too busy using rules of thumb. Or making up stories about how the term “rule of thumb” originated. A lot of times we just make things up. Small lies of poetry that illuminate larger truths. The accidental utterings that twist and turn into slang. The nonsense-words that sound great on the tongue and are reserved for use late at night, in the ear of a lover.

But we expect more of our scientists. They wouldn’t just make things up, would they?

The fact is, the language of science is only as truthful and transparent as the humans engaged in its endless algorithm. But we expect scientists to be specific and methodological in their approach to naming the world. 

Names have power. Names are socially constructed. Shouldn’t Scientists be unsusceptible to power and social constructs? Unfortunately, this is what language is composed of. Naming is the “this” and the “not that” that makes the social life of humans fraught with complexity, otherness and alienation.

So us puny humans get on with it the best we can. We construct fuzzy, imprecise and arbitrary words like Ecology. They are repeated, republished and legitimized by communities of practice: molecular biologists, structural engineers, marketing consultants, and other groups of humans that congregate around shared mental models.

The way Science speaks is a reminder of its limitations. Humans invented it, and humans are beautifully imperfect. Sometimes they play scientists, sometimes they play business people, other times they just want to infuriate their enemies or impress their family members. Amazingly, these human energies are captured in the history of something as banal as the construction of technical terms for use in Science. Meaning is made by many voices, and we invite you to add yours to this dialogue by contributing to the wikipedia page for ‘Cisgenesis’ or otherwise making public your understanding of the word.