By Rachel Boswell, Communications Manager (Education) at the British Science Association


What would you consider to be the top words and phrases of our current times – the ones we can’t stop saying, hearing, thinking and writing? ‘Covid’ and ‘roadmap’ are surely front of mind, along with “Pfizer or AstraZeneca?”, or “I’ve forgotten my mask”.

In fact, words related to COVID-19 – and the science surrounding it – have not only entered but veritably dominated general discourse since March 2020. As recorded in the 2020 Words of an Unprecedented Year report, lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) found that the frequency of the word ‘pandemic’ alone soared by over 57,000% since the World Health Organisation made its startling announcement on 11 March 2020. Such an intense, weighty and uncomfortable word quickly became a common, almost desensitised term in our daily exchanges. And that is just one example.

Words of 2020

Previous iterations of the OED’s report, known usually as the Word of the Year report, do as their titles suggest and investigate the single term that ruled the past twelve months. The year 2020, however, saw so much language change in response to the huge shifts in society that lexicographers could not raise one word above others. Alongside ‘COVID-19’, which itself is now a fixed entry in the English dictionary, new or resurrected words such as ‘bushfire’, ‘impeachment’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ were among those that the OED highlighted in its 2020 report. It is extraordinary how such a seismic year can be recounted in a few short terms.

But scientific words still stand out. The report found that general members of society became far more familiar with otherwise unusual medical phrases over the course of the pandemic, understanding what it meant to ‘flatten the curve’ and drive down the ‘R number’. We even became known as ‘armchair epidemiologists’ as the scientists continued their pivotal work elsewhere. But if we are newly-coined armchair epidemiologists, how did scientists come to be known in such a way? The British Science Association (BSA) can provide the answer – and hold responsibility for it too.  

Words of the BSA

Whether you create new dishes in the kitchen or are working towards a cure for cancer, irrespective of your identity, abilities, beliefs and background, you can call yourself a scientist – and that is huge. Such a comprehensive term is now firmly set in the English language, but before the 1833 meeting of the BSA – an annual event which later developed into the British Science Festival – this wasn’t the case. It was here that professor and polymath William Whewell proposed ‘scientist’ as a single, wholesome term to describe someone who worked in any branch of science. While at the time it was largely considered a frivolous quip, six decades later biologist Thomas Huxley returned to the term ‘scientist’, supporting Whewell’s original suggestion. Fast-forward to now and we cannot imagine a lexicon without the word.

The BSA can effectively claim creative ownership of other terms, too – ‘dinosaur’ being a notable example. Indeed, ‘dinosaur’ was another product of an 1841 report and annual meeting of the BSA, where naturalist and paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, following his studies on various fossils, proposed ‘Dinosauria’ to define “creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles”. A compound of the Greek deinos (‘horrible’) and sauros (‘lizard’), the well-known ‘terrible lizard’ charged into our vocabulary. Who knows what linguistics gems the next British Science Festival may germinate?

Just as people change, so do words. Some languages wilt while others bloom. Some terms endure while others are no more. (‘Floppy disk’, anyone?) Although building blocks like ‘the’, ‘in’ and ‘on’ will always be the quiet heroes that glue language together, let us also not ignore the origins and impact of many other important words that we so often encounter – particularly those that trace their roots in science.