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Scientific VIEW

A High-Tech Lexicon for Our Times

November 27, 1986|BETTYANN KEVLES

Between science and technology, the English language has been put through the mill. There are those who advocate the usage of familiar words for new concepts or gadgets, on the theory that the novelty of the idea will be softened by the familiarity of the term.

Not long ago I reported on a "rape" on a Canadian lake of a blue-winged teal. An aggressive male, which was not the mate of the female, had pursued the female. She had apparently tried to avoid his advances and finally had dived beneath the surface to get out of his way. She never came up. She had drowned rather than endure an unwanted insemination.

Now I knew, as did the researcher whose work I've been describing, that the male duck had not, most likely, been indulging in pornographic fantasies. He had simply tried to steal another duck's mate. What motives he might have had are a mystery to human observers. Who knows the mind of a duck? Nonetheless, I had used "rape," an inherently inaccurate term that carries with it a host of emotionally loaded associations. It had been convenient and I, as well as the researcher whose work I was describing, simply assumed that everyone knows that ducks don't really rape. But I was wrong.

Or take a new gadget. When NASA developed a reusable vehicle to transport people and instruments in space, they called it a shuttle. There are few people who would mistake the word, used in its new context, with its original meaning--that part of a loom that carries the weft thread back and forth. Without even an etymological connection, many people who use personal computers depend on a "mouse," a rectangular box about the size of a bar of soap, which enables them to move the cursor by remote control so that they don't have to bother with the keyboard.

To avoid using old words in slightly new ways (shuttle), or in totally new and unrelated ways (mouse), some word addicts have opted for coining new combinations of words that precisely describe the function and form of the new entity. Science editor Edward Tenner at Princeton University Press has written "Tech Speak," (Crown: $8.95) a guide to speaking more precisely (if not always more understandably) in the world of high tech. Tenner spent many years as an editor translating scientific lingo into everyday English. In "Tech Speak" he reverses the process. He translates ordinary but often imprecise terms into irreproachably accurate high tech.

Tenner sets his work in an historical context. He points out that in 1382 the term input was first used in Wycliffe's translation of the Bible. Later, in 1610, a translation of Augustine's "City of God" first used the word dichotomy. More familiar to those involved in tech-speak is in the 1755 dictionary where Samuel Johnson defines a network as "any thing reticulated at equal distances with interstices between the intersections." Modern language-builders may equal Johnson, but may never surpass him.

Although Tech Speak consists of jargon, Tenner explains that it's more than jargon. For jargon separates people while Tech Speak, like Latin in the Middle Ages, brings people together.

But enough discussion. Tech Speak is best understood by example. There is a sketch on the 17th page of his well-illustrated volume of an "in vivo recombinant genetic system, a dyadic hominidauto propagation unit for intergenerational meiotic chromosome redistribution." They are labeled, as the "xx genetic donor," the "xy genetic donor" and the "genetic recipient." They are, of course, a mother, father and child. Some pages on, in a section on "nutrient systems," there is a picture of an "avian embryo nutrient cartridge." It is seen in its calcium casing. It is also shown sunny-side up.

Once you get the hang of it, Tech Speak is fun. It is a word game that can be played on the freeway if your "ambulant sonic information retrieval module" (Walkman) is broken, or your car's "ambulant sonic receptor" (radio) isn't working. Tenner provides hints of how to play. If an object is made of wood, call it "lignin-reinforced cellulose;" if it's glass say "fused-sillicate." All Tech Speak isn't multisyllabic. An alcoholic drink becomes ethanol; an evergreen becomes a conifer. Prefixers are even more succinct. "On a higher level" becomes meta- and underneath becomes infra-.

Tech Speak is scientifically honest. Things or processes are described as what they are made of and what they do. So the space shuttle would be a "redeployable anthropodophorous orbiting vehicle," and the mouse a "remote analogue cursor orientator." This is a mouthful compared to the vernacular, but then in Tech Speak everyone would know what it means. Unlike jargon, Tech Speak, is not the private language of an elite in-group. It might seem unwieldly, but it would have avoided the kind of misunderstanding that occurred in describing the unsuccessful reproductive behavior of those unfortunate ducks.

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