A Short History of the Word: ‘Scientist’

The appellation scientist, stated Sydney Ross,  is considered a title of honor. He added that this is hotly contended for by economists, engineers, physicians, psychologists, and others. In our contemporary age, it may have taken the mantle of the priest or the shaman for many people. But how did this word began? Did it just come about? Did someone invent it? 

In fact, it is a historical fact that it was invented by a man named William Whewell, an ingenious gentleman as he referred to himself. I totally agree with his assessment. He has published works in mechanics, astronomy, physics, economics, and geology. He was the first to do citizen science (outsourcing “underlaborers” as he called them) in his Great Tide Experiment. This was in 1835 (a year after the word scientist was given birth by him). He was a philosopher, a historian of science, a scientist, a theologian, and an Anglican priest (he is English). He was the “typical” polymath.

William Whewell, Wikipedia

He stated in his review of the book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences by Mary Sommersville:

“We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.” 

This then new word ‘scientist’ appeared in the Quarterly Review for March 1834. Ross pointed out that the word was widely believed to have been classical for centuries. But, as a matter of historical fact, it was quite recent. It wasn’t invented to create this badge of honor. It was invented because of necessity: further clarification.

Whewell thought that the sciences has this long tendency to separate and to be dismembered.

He remarked that the mathematician turns away from the chemist; the chemist from the naturalist. When the mathematician is left to his own devices, he then divides himself up as a pure mathematician and a mixed mathematician (I would imagine “applied”). The chemist, he then adds, could be doing work in electro-chemistry and leaves other chemists to do chemical analysis. Between the mathematician and the chemist is then someone that studies heat, moisture, and the like. Back then, there was no English word for it but there was a French one. It was called ‘physicien’. This is not your family doctor.

Science, even more physical science, stated Whewell, loses all traces of unity. It is confusing and bewildering. What exactly to men and people of science do? People in the sciences know what they do but they don’t seem to get along with the word to describe them.

Back then people like Isaac Newton called themselves natural philosophers. Michael Faraday, who is famous for his work on electromagnetism, likely died without accepting the term scientist. He considered himself to be an experimental philosopher throughout his career. Lord Kelvin, himself, did not approve and preferred the term naturalist defined in the 1755 Johnson’s Dictionary to be a ‘person well versed in natural philosophy’.

But the title “philosopher” seems too wide and lofty for Whewell. Many philosophers do not deal with the natural world. Some fancy generalized deductions and would not seem to deal with the toil of experiments and epistemic problems of induction. This chasm in the “mother discipline” needed new words to convey the very separation. Out of necessity it was called for, hence the new term ‘scientist’.

The term itself did not catch on fast. It was a slow adoption. It, too, analogous to organisms in the world has rivals. The French did not want to adopt this term. They preferred savans (savant) over scientist. Whewell found this “rather assuming”. The Germans wanted to use natur-forscher instead. This, roughly translated to English by Whewell, would mean nature-poker or nature-peeper. It just doesn’t sound right. Today, those may sound like jail slang.

For many undetermined and determined reasons, the word scientist won out leaving its rivals in the dust. This is all thanks to the Americans who embraced the term and until in gained honor and prestige. Two Americans, the astronomer Benjamin A. Gould and philologist Fitzedward Hall, independently proposed the term in two separate publications.

This is without knowledge that it was once proposed by the polymath William Whewell. Also, this might be without the knowledge that the word has some linguistic impropriety. Ross remarked that the word is a Latin-Greek hybrid. Or at best, it is a formation in incorrect Latin.

In a letter published in the Academy for September 19, 1874, Alexander J. Ellis F.R.S. who is the president of the Philological Society called the word ‘scientist’ to be a “an American barbarous trisyllable”.

It’s not barbaric now.


Ross, S. (1962). Scientist: The story of a word. Annals of science18(2), 65-85.

Whewell, W. (1836). XVII. Researches on the tides.—Sixth series. On the results of an extensive system of tide observations made on the coasts of Europe and America in June 1835. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London126, 289-341.



One thought on “A Short History of the Word: ‘Scientist’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s