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How scientific terms become established

  1. Aug 17, 2013 #1
    I am a bit curious about how pedagogical terminology, say what you found at the glossary of your science (or non-science) textbook gets established.

    My guess is that you have a pioneer in the field come up with some concepts, write articles etc. on those concepts and gives it a name, and then that name for the concept is spread around literature to eventually find its way to textbooks.

    Sometimes though, I would imagine that the scientist picks a bad name for something, usually because it could cause confusion or ambiguity with something else or because the name is just not fitting or related to what it meant to describe. In this case, do people (who?) just reject the scientist's name and choose their own proper-sounding name?

    This is just a guess, so I am (probably) wrong. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on how terminology makes its way into the glossary (or into the garbage bin) ? For instance, who decided to call an atomic orbital an orbital rather than a cloud or a mist and how do people decide whether such an such name is appropriate for injection into mainstream textbooks?

    Surely someone has to be responsible for choosing to describe certain phenomena English words that sound "related" ? So it would make to define the span of a set as the set of all its linear combinations if you look at the definition of the word span as "To cover or extend over an area or time*period".

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 17, 2013 #2


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    One notable mix up I find lies in elementary trigonometry. I personally think this is a mix up, but hey who am I to challenge centuries of formalities?

    Consider ##sin(x)## and ##cos(x)##.

    It is well known that ##csc(x) = \frac{1}{sin(x)}## and ##sec(x) = \frac{1}{cos(x)}##.

    Now while there's not really an issue with that at all, I feel that ##csc(x)## would have been a better label for ##\frac{1}{cos(x)}##( co-secant, cosine ) and ##sec(x)## would have been a much better choice for ##\frac{1}{sin(x)}## ( secant, sine ).

    Unfortunately it is not to be so.
  4. Aug 17, 2013 #3
  5. Aug 17, 2013 #4
    It is said that those terms were established historically because of how they look geometrically based on circle, not how they sound like.

  6. Aug 18, 2013 #5
    Usually it is up to the early investigator in a topic to name it. Words are strange things, though, and sometimes a coined name just doesn't stick.

    Case in point: Fleming invented the vacuum tube in the UK. He called it a valve as an analogy to a pipe valve.

    De Forest somewhat independently developed the vacuum tube again in the US (he was a fraud and didn't understand his own invention, but the fact remains he was the first one in the USA to put a grid plate in a glass rectifier). De Forest called his device the Audion.

    Now, Fleming's choice stuck. Vacuum tubes are still called valves in the UK.

    De Forest's choice bit the dust. Now his device is called either a vacuum tube or a triode.

    So who knows? These terms kind of invent themselves I guess.
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