Words

I like discovering the story behind words. A few months, I realised that “mer” was greek for “parts” and so “polymer” and “monomer” just meant “many parts” and “one part”. Words which come from other languages, and any “native” words, must themselves have ultimately just been made up by someone at some point. The problem is that the birth of most words is not recorded. You might be able to guess why the word was chosen (like, “anteater”) but I think it’s unusual to be able to pinpoint exactly when a word first entered the language.

I’ve been reading a recent biography of Michael Faraday, who did a lot of important early work in electromagentism, and from this book I read the following historic nugget. By 1831, a lot had been discovered about the nature of electromagnetism, but the language used to describe the phenomena hadn’t caught up. People were often using analogies to water – they talked of “electrical fluid – but this analogy could be confusing. Faraday started a correspondance with Revd William Whewell at Cambridge Uni, which I’ll paraphrase:

FARADAY: “I think we need some names for the terminals of a battery. I’ve came up with: exode, zetode, zetexode but I also think westode and eastode are pretty catchy too”

WHEWELL: “Hmm, that’s a bit of a mouthful. How about anode and cathode? Pretty solid greek background for those words”

FARADAY: “Cheers Will, but the guys down at the pub weren’t very convinced by anode and cathode. They laughed at my poor use of greek”

[ FARADAY goes away and writes a paper using the terms DEXIODE and SKAIODE instead ]

WHEWELL: “Let me give you a quick crash course in greek, and you can tell your mates where to stick their criticisms”

FARADAY: “Y’know Will, I think you might just be right after all”

And that’s how the words “anode” and “cathode” first entered the language of electricity. That’s why we have “cathode ray tubes”. Not content with that, Faraday and Whewell went on to add the words “ion”, “dielectric” and also “diamagnetic” and “paramagetic” to the language, all terms which are still used today when describing electricity and magnetism.