On the Naming of Terms in Several Disciplines


Recently I watched an entertaining talk by Neil deGrasse Tyson in which he poked fun at the confounding complexity of biological and chemical terms, in contrast to the elegant simplicity of terms in astrophysics. The segment starts at 14:34 of the talk and goes till about 17:00.

[15:01] What do you call spots on the Sun? [Pause] Sunspots!


Indeed, terms like sunspot, red giant, supergiant, nova, supernova, ring, moon, black hole, pulsar, dark matter, dwarf planet, spiral galaxy, singularity, solar flare—it is immediately obvious what these things describe. Even terms like neutron star or Trans-Neptunian object are clear if one is familiar with neutrons or Neptune. Let us see what term sound like in other disciplines.


What do you call the most important molecule in your body that contains all your genetic information? Deoxyribonucleic acid. What do you call the energy molecule that your body runs on? Adenosine triphosphate. What do you call the most common liquid you drink (if you aren’t a college student)? Dihydrogen monoxide.


Things like these are what Tyson was getting at, where, without even going into the ideas or concepts, a student may be already confounded by the sheer terminology.

Granted, at the core all these names make sense and are very systematically denominated. For instance, “dihydrogen monoxide” describes exactly what the constituents of the molecule are: 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. And “deoxyribonucleic acid” is really just a nucleic acid (a nucleotide chain) with deoxyribose as the sugar component. Even the term “deoxyribose” is well named, as it is the sugar obtained by removal (de-) of an oxygen atom (oxy) from a ribose sugar.

In this respect, I don’t think biochemical terms are really as confounding to a scientifically literate population as Dr. Tyson makes them out to be; however, I do see his point in that they would confuse the hell out of someone who is not scientifically literate. Even then, these terms would not cause an illiterate person to gain a wrong understanding.

I claim that while biochemical terms are quite abstract, at least they are not misleading.


“This allocation of resources is Pareto efficient.”

This term might have a positive connotation, as efficiency is associated with good, and so the masses may support a policy having anything having to do with it. However, it is possible that an allocation where the top 1% controls 99% of the resources is Pareto efficient. Indeed, an allocation where one person controls 100% of the resources is Pareto efficient, as the term only concerns whether the allocation could be changed such that one could benefit without harming any one else. Given the misleading connotation, it would be disastrous if this term were ever uttered by an economist—or worse yet, a politician—in public discourse.


It is especially misleading as economics generally has very simple, intuitive terms: supply, demand, goods, depression, inflation, market, labor force, bubble, money, wage, etc. These are all good terms. But sometimes, a term is just plain misleading: for instance, the fiscal cliff.

Medicine and Psychology

The terms disease and disorder are pretty misleading. A disease does not have to be infectious, and someone with a disorder could behave just as normally, whatever that means, as a “normal” person. Even sane and insane are notoriously difficult to tell apart.

one flew over the cuckoos nest scene

And what does it mean to cure someone?


That said, most psychology terms are pretty self-explantory, albeit sometimes difficult to test accurately.


A field like astrophysics in which the terms are extremely clear. The only term I find troubling is postmodern, which seems to imply something that it is not.


This is a very technical field, where speed and velocity mean different things, and if you are describing a scenario, you must use words like force, momentum, and energy very carefully. Technicality aside though, it is very obvious what the terms are about.


Given that linguistics should have something to do with this point, you might expect linguistics to have very intuitive terms. Depending on the subfield, however, there are some very non-obvious terms. What is a morpheme?

Computer Science

Like math, it is very unintuitive at times. For instance, computer scientists have no idea what a tree is supposed to look like.



Math terms are both super-technical and very non-obvious, given that half the terms are named after a person. Even for the half that are words in English, there are some issues. In topology, for instance, you might think that open is the opposite of closed, but in reality a set can be open, closed, neither open or closed, or both open and closed (in which case it is called clopen). What about injectionsurjection, and bijection—what is a “jection”?

The term rational numbers for fractions makes sense as fractions are ratios, but who came up with real, imaginary, or complex? It becomes worse in abstract algebra, where you have things like groups, rings, and fields. At least the word object is what you think it means: just anything. And measure theory makes a lot of sense. A measure is pretty much what you think it means, and almost means almost what you think it means.

I think math is the only subject where two renowned experts can have a discussion, each not having a clue what the other is talking about. In this respect, I think mathematics beats biochemistry in confusion of terminology.

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