Words with Multiple Meanings - ACS Publications - American

course in instrumental analysis (as I had, when this happened to me), you might ... science to non- science contexts. Just for fun, here are some more...
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Words with Multiple Meanings I

magine that you, the chemist, are in conversation with an erudite but conservative public person, who asks you what you do. Well, if you were a professor and had just finished a course in instrumental analysis (as I had, when this happened to me), you might explain that some of the things you taught impressionable young people about were separation, controls, noise, and bias. Your listener may have been quite aghast by the time you got to bias, and when you mentioned further that they learned about excitation, models, and coupling, your listener might have run, thinking, “Is this what modern chemistry is? Divorce, domination, loud music, and racism—and furthermore, sex, beautiful persons, and (censored!)?” Have you ever tried to explain your analytical profession to a nonscientist and noticed peculiar eyebrow twitching? I have, and I am, in an amused way, sensitized to the numerous double meanings of words when you cross from science to nonscience contexts. Just for fun, here are some more:

Nonscience meaning/science meaning food advertised as free from chemicals/carbonbased chemicals Radical fringe element, unusual/molecule with unpaired electron Natural free-range, Mother Nature’s/product of nature Paper what we write on, a newspaper/a science report Galley where slaves died, kitchen on a ship/correcting a science report Bond spy, killer, 007/shackles between atoms Stem part of a plant/embryonic tissue Single not married/molecule Activation done to a new credit card/energy barrier Absolute firm opinion/alcohol Formality meaningless gesture/concentration Pulse pumping of the heart/discontinuous change of potential, etc. Polar north or south/a gradient Current up to date/flow of electrons Migration done by fish, birds/ions in a field Band music makers/continuum of electronic states Organic


Carrier Well Gate Beacon Lifetime Resolution

propagator of disease/movement of charge where oil and water are stored/an energy minimum garden door/molecular door lighthouse/fluorophore a period of existence/a period of existence get it settled, image quality/separations quality

This list is very incomplete; there are many more with multiple meanings. Science often borrows nonscience words to give a qualitative “feel” for the meaning. Commonly, this borrowing is from the English language and appears in the texts of scientific articles—although analogous borrowing, I am sure, is part of all languages. I agree with our non-English-speaking readers that double meanings can be confusing in a foreign language! I think the creation of double meanings like those above are more characteristic of chemists than of other scientists—physicists tend to invent “cute” words, like “colors”; sociologists favor hyphenated words; and biochemists use alphabet soup abbreviations. The point I want to make is about our communication of the meanings of chemistry to the public. If you explain what you do and rely on the listeners’ English language to get the idea, be careful to explain that bias has to do with measuring numbers—like perhaps the IRS has a bias about your tax bill—and that excitation refers to an amount of energy given to a molecule. Finally, there is a flip side to double meanings of common words, which is their use, in nonscience settings, of science words that are uncommon in nonscience language. For example, in explaining a Gaussian distribution, and the randomness it reflects, I sometimes suggest to my students that a wonderfully stealthy insult can be made to sound, to the non-erudite, like an admiring comment: “Oh Charlie, your mind is so wonderfully stochastic!” Language is a wonderful thing. It’s important to know how to use it in the correct context, and it can sometimes be fun in the incorrect context.

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