International scientific vocabulary

International scientific vocabulary (ISV) comprises scientific and specialized words whose language of origin may or may not be certain, but which are in current use in several modern languages (that is, translingually, whether in naturalized, loanword, or calque forms).

The name "international scientific vocabulary" was first used by Philip Gove in Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961).[1] As noted by David Crystal,[2] science is an especially productive field for new coinages. It is also especially predisposed to immediate translingual sharing of words owing to its very nature: scientists working in many countries and languages, reading each other's latest articles in scientific journals (via foreign language skills, translation help, or both), and eager to apply any reported advances to their own context.



According to Webster's Third, "some ISV words (like haploid) have been created by taking a word with a rather general and simple meaning from one of the languages of antiquity, usually Latin and Greek, and conferring upon it a very specific and complicated meaning for the purposes of modern scientific discourse." An ISV word is typically a classical compound or a derivative which "gets only its raw materials, so to speak, from antiquity." Its morphology may vary across languages.

The online version of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (Merriam-Webster, 2002)[3] adds that the ISV "consists of words or other linguistic forms current in two or more languages" that "differ from New Latin in being adapted to the structure of the individual languages in which they appear."[4] In other words, ISV terms are often made with Greek, Latin, or other combining forms, but each language pronounces the resulting neo-lexemes within its own phonemic "comfort zone", and makes morphological connections using its normal morphological system. In this respect, ISV can be viewed as heavily borrowing loanwords from Neo-Latin.

McArthur[5] characterizes ISV words and morphemes as "translinguistic", explaining that they operate "in many languages that serve as mediums for education, culture, science, and technology." Besides European languages, such as Russian, Swedish, English, and Spanish, ISV lexical items also function in Japanese, Malay, Philippine languages, and other Asian languages. According to McArthur, no other set of words and morphemes is so international.

It is not always practically relevant, to any concerns except philology and the history of science, which language any particular ISV term first appeared in, as its cognate naturalized counterparts in other languages are effectively coeval with it for most practical scientific purposes, as well as being self-evidently equivalent in surface analysis. This characteristic is corollary to the very nature of science: it is predisposed to immediate translingual sharing of words, as scientists, working in many countries and languages, are perennially reading each other's latest articles in scientific journals (via foreign language skills, translation help, or both), and eager to apply any reported advances to their own context. This theme applies even regardless of whether each instance of scientific exchange is openly collaborative (as in open science) or is driven by espionage or industrial espionage (as for example regarding weapons systems development).

The ISV is one of the concepts behind the development and standardization of the constructed language called Interlingua. Scientific and medical terms in Interlingua are largely of Greco-Latin origin, but, like most Interlingua words, they appear in a wide range of languages. Interlingua's vocabulary is established using a group of control languages selected as they radiate words into, and absorb words from, a large number of other languages. A prototyping technique then selects the most recent common ancestor of each eligible Interlingua word or affix. The word or affix takes a contemporary form based on the control languages. This procedure is meant to give Interlingua the most generally international vocabulary possible.[6]

Words and word roots that have different meanings from those in the original languages


This is a list of scientific words and word roots which have different meanings from those in the original languages.

Word or root Scientific meaning Original language Original word Original meaning Notes
andro-, -ander stamen, man Greek ἀνήρ, ἀνδρός man in flowers of flowering plants
gyno-, -gyne carpel, woman Greek γυνή, γυναικός woman
capno- carbon dioxide Greek καπνός smoke
electro- electricity Greek ἤλεκτρον amber via static electricity from rubbing amber
-itis inflammation Greek -ίτης pertaining to
thorax chest (anatomy) Greek θώραξ breastplate
toxo- poison Greek τόξον bow (weapon) via 'poisoned arrow'. It means 'bow' in Toxodon and 'arc' in isotoxal.
macro- big Greek μακρός long
In names of biological taxa
-ceras ammonite Greek κέρας horn via resemblance to a ram's horn
-crinus crinoid Greek κρίνος lily extracted from name "crinoid"
grapto- graptolite Greek γραπτός written via resemblance of fossil
-gyrinus labyrinthodont Greek γυρῖνος tadpole
-lestes predator Greek λῃστής robber
-mimus ornithomimid Greek μῖμος mime extracted from name Ornithomimus = 'bird mimic'
-mys rodent Greek μῦς mouse including in Phoberomys
-saurus reptile, dinosaur Greek σαῦρος lizard


stegocephalian Greek στέγη roof via their cranium roofs as fossils
crocodilian Ancient
Quoted by ancient Greek authors as Egyptian words for 'crocodile'
therium usually mammal Greek θηρίον beast, animal
Names of bones
femur thighbone Latin femur thigh Classical Latin genitive often feminis
fibula (a leg bone) Latin fībula brooch tibia & fibula looked like a brooch and its pin
radius (an arm bone) Latin radius spoke
tibia shinbone Latin tībia flute via animal tibias modified into flutes
ulna (an arm bone) Latin ulna elbow, cubit measure
foetus / fetus unborn baby Medical Latin fētus (var. foetus) As 1st/2nd decl. adjective, 'pregnant'
As 4th decl. noun, 'the young of animals'

Words and word roots that have one meaning from Latin and another meaning from Greek


This is a list of scientific words and word roots which have one meaning from Latin and another meaning from Greek.

Word or root Scientific meaning
from Latin
Example Latin word Latin meaning Scientific meaning
from Greek
Example Greek word Greek meaning Notes
alg- alga alga alga seaweed pain analgesic ἄλγος pain
crema- burn cremation cremāre to burn (tr.) hang, be suspended cremaster κρεμάννυμι I hang (tr.)

Other words and word roots with two meanings


This is a list of other scientific words and word roots which have two meanings.

Word or root Scientific meaning 1 Example Origin Original meaning Scientific meaning 2 Example Origin Original meaning Notes
uro- tail Uromastyx Greek οὐρά tail urine urology Greek οὐρῶ urine
mento- the mind mental Latin mēns the mind (of the) chin mentoplasty Latin mentum chin

Other differences


Another difference between scientific terms and classical Latin and Greek is that many compounded scientific terms do not elide the inflection vowel at the end of a root before another root or prefix that starts with a vowel, e.g. gastroenteritis; but elision happens in gastrectomy (not *gastroectomy).

The Greek word τέρας (τέρατο-) = "monster" is usually used to mean "monster (abnormal)" (e.g. teratology, teratogen), but some biological names use it to mean "monster (enormous)" (e.g. the extinct animals Teratornis (a condor with a 12-foot wingspan) and Terataspis (a trilobite 2 feet long)).



A feature affecting clarity in seeing a scientific word's components is haplology, i.e. removing one of two identical or similar syllables that meet at the junction point of a compound word. Examples are:

See also





  1. ^ McArthur, Tom (editor), The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992.
  2. ^ Crystal, David, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  3. ^ The online version is available by subscription.
  4. ^ "International scientific vocabulary." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. Accessed July 11, 2006.
  5. ^ McArthur, Tom, "Asian Lexicography: Past, Present, and Prospective", Lexicography in Asia (Introduction). Password Publishers Limited, 1998. Accessed January 17, 2007.
  6. ^ Gode, Alexander, Interlingua: A Dictionary of the International Language. New York: Storm Publishers, 1951.