Is it really any clearer to say ``edentulous'' instead of ``toothless''?
27th August 2002
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'',
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.
- One Dutch correspondant expressed the need for Latin and Greek
terms as ``Not all of us speak your very difficult language.''
(What's so hard about English? :-)
The point here is that technical terms such as ``pes'' and
``edentulous'' are the same in all languages, which makes it
easier for people to make some sense of technical papers
written in languages other than their first.
- There are some technical words, of course, which have no
commonplace equivalent - or at least, the technical word is
much more clearly defined. For example, while we can say
``hand'' instead of ``manus'', we really need the term
``premaxilla'', since the only alternative would be ``the
bone at the front of the upper jaw, except in ceratopsians, in
which it's the bone behind the front one.''
A less extreme example is ``pes''. It's tempting just to say
``foot'', but a statement like ``the ceratopsian foot has
four digits'' could be misinterpreted as referring to the
forefoot. I suppose that the terse ``pes'' is better than
``hind foot'' once you're used to it.
- Some people feel it's inappropriate to talk about (for example)
and Ichthyosaurus foot; but the concept of an
Ichthyosaurus pes is well-defined.
- Another correspondant, however, replied to the question ``what
does the longer and more obscure word buy us?'' simply by
saying ``In brief, nothing.''
As an example, consider the article Function and Adaptation
in Paleontology and Phylogenetics: Why Do We Omit Darwin?,
The abstract is
available in two versions, the version initially displayed in
scientific language, and the other (click on the
``Plain-language summary'' link in the left-hand column) using
everyday language and phrasing. In addition to being clearer,
the everyday version fills in assumptions and makes explicit
assertions that are only tacit in the more Latinate version.
The clearer statements were more compelling. (Of course, this
is really just a plea for good, clear, writing.)
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
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.