Is it really any clearer to say ``edentulous'' instead of ``toothless''?

27th August 2002

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Why do scientific descriptions of anatomical features use different words from everyday language? Is it really any clearer to say ``pes'' instead of ``foot'', ``edentulous'' instead of ``toothless'', etc?

Here's what Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary has to say about ``edentulous'' (I'm quoting the 1913 edition because it's freely available on the web, e.g. at but I guess the definition's not changed much in eighty years.)

Edentulous \E*den"tu*lous\ (?; 135), a. [L. edentulus; e out +
     dens, dentis, tooth.]

So what does the longer and more obscure word buy us?


People seem to be split on this subject. There are real benefits to using the technical vocabulary, but also real drawbacks.

On top of all these arguments, it's hard to avoid wondering whether a part of the reason for the extensive use of technical vocabulary is a sort of ``preservation of the priesthood'' - established scientists subconsciously not wanting it to be too easy for newcomers to enter their field, which certainly happens in, say, computer science. But maybe that's just mindless paranoia.

All in all, my feeling is that ``pes'' makes a certain amount of sense, but that when an animal has no teeth, we should say it's ``toothless'', not ``edentulous''.

I will leave the final word on this subject to Edward Summer of the Dinosaur Interplanery Gazzette at

Date: Fri, 12 Jan 2001 12:45:29 -0500 From: Dinosaur Interplanetary Gazette To: Subject: [dinofaq] Technical terms We've been publishing a science magazine for children for over five years now and the issues represented by "common language" versus "scientific language" are very important ones. It's quite clear that some technical terms are "jargon" that keep a particular "in-group" (in this case paleontologists) separate from everyone else. This has the advantage of preserving jobs and preserving the appearance of expertise. After all, if no one can understand what you're talking about, then they have to consult you to explain it to them. Just look at attorneys to see that in action. On the other hand, we have readers in more than 135 countries now who speak not quite that many languages. It's a form of cultural arrogance to start with an English language term like "toothless" and assume that lots of people will understand what it means just because you and I do. That's where standardization to a Greek or Latin (or other agreed upon term) is useful: It becomes a universal word that stands apart from everyday language. Now the standard terms change over time (French, for example, used to be the standard language of diplomacy and German the standard language of science): There are proposals to make Chinese the standard written language for science because the written characters are so specific and distinct. Nonetheless, English is becoming an almost universal language for day to day conversation, and Latin (Greek) has maintained its status in the naming of animals. I'd say it's a two edged sword and probably the best solution. There is, however, a responsibility of practicing scientists to communicate with the specific audience to whom they're speaking: "pes" is great at an SVP meeting, but it's not great (without explanation) when speaking to 3 year olds in a science class in Namibia or Chicago.

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