Greek in biology

This is a fun essay about biological terms borrowed from or inspired by Greek, written by a group of (I presume) Greek speakers: Iliopoulos & al (2019), Hypothesis, analysis and synthesis, it’s all Greek to me.

We hope that this contribution will encourage scientists to think about the terminology used in modern science, technology and medicine (Wulff, 2004), and to be more careful when seeking to introduce new words and phrases into our vocabulary.

First, I like how they celebrate the value of knowing more than one language. I feel like bi- and multilingualism in science is most often discussed as a problem: Either we non-native speakers have problems catching up with the native speakers, or we’re burdening them with our poor writing. Here, the authors seem to argue that knowing another language (Greek) helps both your understanding of scientific language, and the style and grace with which you use it.

I think this is the central argument:

Non-Greek speakers will, we are sure, be surprised by the richness and structure of the Greek language, despite its often inept naturalization in English or other languages, and as a result be better able to understand their own areas of science (Snell, 1960; Montgomery, 2004). Our favorite example is the word ‘analysis’: everyone uses it, but few fully understand it. ‘Lysis’ means ‘breaking up’, while ‘ana-‘ means ‘from bottom to top’ but also ‘again/repetitively’: the subtle yet ingenious latter meaning of the term implies that if you break up something once, you might not know how it works; however, if you break up something twice, you must have reconstructed it, so you must understand the inner workings of the system.

I’m sure it is true that some of the use of Greek-inspired terms in scientific English is inept, and would benefit from checking by someone who knows Greek. However, this passage invites two objections.

First, why would anyone think that the Greek language has less richness and structure then English? Then again, if I learned Greek, it is possible that I would find that the richness would be even more than I expected.

Second, does knowing Greek mean that you have a deeper appreciation for the nuances of a concept like analysis? Maybe ‘analysis’ as understood without those double meanings of the ‘ana-‘ prefix is less exciting, but if it is true that most people don’t know about this subtlety, this can’t be what they mean by ‘analysis’. So, if that etymological understanding isn’t part of how most people use the word, do we really understand it better by learning that story? It sounds like they think that the word is supposed to have a true meaning separate from how it is used, and I’m not sure that is helpful.

So what are some less inept uses of Greek? They like the term ‘epigenomics’, writing that it is being ‘introduced in a thoughtful and meaningful way’. To me, this seems like an unfortunate example, because I can think of few terms in genomics that cause more confusion. ‘Epigenomics’ is the upgraded version of ‘epigenetics’, a word which was, unfortunately, coined at least twice with different meanings. And now, epigenetics is this two-headed beast that feeds on geneticists’s energy as they try to understand what on earth other geneticists are saying.

First, Conrad Waddington glued ‘epigenesis’ and ‘genetics’ together to define epigenetics as ‘the branch of biology that studies the causal interactions between genes and their products which bring the phenotype into being’ (Waddington 1942, quoted in Deans & Maggert 2015). That is, it is what we today might call developmental genetics. Later, David Nanney connected it to gene regulatory mechanisms that are stable through cell division, and we get the modern view of epigenetics as a layer of regulatory mechanisms on top of the DNA sequence. I would be interested to know which of these two intertwined meanings it is that the authors like.

Judging by the affiliations of the authors, the classification of the paper (by the way, how is this ‘computational and systems biology, genetics and genomics’, eLife?), and the citations (16 of 27 to medicine and science journals, a lot of which seems to be similar opinion pieces), this feels like a missed opportunity to connect with language scholarship. I’m no better myself–I’m not a scholar of language, and I haven’t tried to invite one to co-write this blog post with me … But there must be scholarship and expertise outside biomedicine relevant to this topic, and language sources richer than an etymological online dictionary?

Finally, the table of new Greek-inspired terms that ‘might be useful’ is a fun thought exercise, and if it serves as inspiration for someone to have an eureka moment about a concept they need to investigate, great (‘… but what is a katagenome, really? Oh, maybe …’). But I think that telling scientists to coin new words is inviting catastrophe. I’d much rather take the lesson that we need fewer new tortured terms borrowed from Greek, rather than more of them. It’s as if I, driven by the nuance and richness I recognise in my own first language, set out to coin övergenome, undergenome and pågenome.