Science education may be on the decline. The general level of scientific knowledge may be headed back to the Dark Ages. But the language of science has never been more popular.

Or more woefully abused.

Take, for example, the notorious paradigm shift, a term introduced in 1962 by historian Thomas Kuhn to describe a change in basic assumptions about the theory of science. The change from an earth-centered to a solar-centered view qualifies as a paradigm shift. Your redesigned logo, however, does not. It's just a change.

Here are some other examples of scientific and mathematical terms whose meanings have been appropriated and muddied by the press and especially by corporate marketing departments. (American business has had a love affair with science, or pseudoscience, since the late nineteenth century, when Frederick W. Taylor introduced "scientific management" — a method for getting more work out of employees — to the lexicon. Scan the business shelf of your library and you'll see lots of science-y terms like "force field analysis," "delta models," and, of course, "leverage.")  For several of my explanations I'm indebted to the late Anglo-American linguist R.L. Trask (1944-2004), author of Say What You Mean!, a highly opinionated and hugely entertaining guide to writing clear English.

Autistic: Autism is a brain-development disorder involving impaired social interaction and communication. "Autistic" does not mean "self-absorbed," "insensitive," or "quiet," although you'll occasionally see it used that way.

Average: R. L. Trask points out that this word "has a precise mathematical sense," but is often used when "typical" or "ordinary" would be more accurate.

DNA: No longer confined to genetics laboratories, DNA has replicated all over corporate America. "Corporate DNA" supposedly involves values and culture that can be passed down to successive generations of workers. In fact, though, its meaning is as susceptible to mutation as actual DNA is.  You don't have to search far to find arguments for DNA being unalterable, changeable, buildable, and rebuildable. Some companies infuse stuff into their DNA, while others bake stuff into it. (I've written frequently about corporate DNA in my blog, Fritinancy. Here's the introductory post. And here's an actual genomics scientist, Keith Robison, speculating on what "corporate DNA" might mean — for example, "There's a lot of redundancy here" and "A lot of pieces of the organization resemble decayed portions of other pieces of our organization.")

Exponential: Like "average," this word has a specific mathematical meaning (in this case, "a pattern of change in which the amount of change that occurs in a quantity during a small interval of time is proportional to the amount of that quantity present": from a glossary of systems theory). As Trask observes, "It is not just a fancy word for 'fast.'"

Fraction: A fraction is not "a tiny amount"; it's any part of a whole. Nevertheless, we frequently see passages like this one, from a San Francisco Chronicle article about Hawaiian Airlines: "Hawaiian will offer one departure from Oakland and one flight back from Honolulu each day. That's a fraction of the multiple flights formerly operated by Aloha and ATA." What fraction are we talking about — one-sixteenth? One-half? Ninety-nine one-hundredths?

Parameter: Because it resembles "perimeter," this word is frequently given the meaning of "limit" or "constraint." But a parameter is actually a numerical variable that can be held constant in a given case. Never use it to mean "factor" or "characteristic."

Perfect storm: It's not merely a coincidence or a confluence of random events. A perfect storm is (quoting Wikipedia) "the simultaneous occurrence of events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the result of their chance combination." Perfect storms are rare and catastrophic: Sebastian Junger's accurately titled 1997 bestseller The Perfect Storm told the story of a once-in-a-century nor'easter. Coming down with a cold and misplacing your car keys on the day of your big presentation at work is not a perfect storm.

Quantum leap: In physics, a quantum leap occurs when a subatomic particle such as an electron jumps directly from one energy level to another without passing through a continuum of energies in between. Note that quantum leaps occur only on a microscopic scale, which means that they're very, very small — not the huge, um, "paradigm-shifting" leaps that they're commonly associated with. (One of my blog readers, who works in space systems, took the time to patiently explain this to me. Thank you, Michael Holt!)

Schizophrenic:  True, schizo- is the Greek root that means "split." But a person afflicted with schizophrenia does not have multiple-personality disorder, and it's simply wrong to use "schizophrenic" to mean "conflicting." Here's Trask again: "The current administration's policies may seem to be inconsistent, but they are not schizophrenic."

My list is one short of the traditional top ten. Do you have a favorite scientific-lingo peeve? Write a comment and add it to the list.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 14th 2008, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Suzanne (Asheville, NC)
Good article, Nancy! My inner science geek is vindicated. I'm especially relieved to see this clarification of the often misinterpreted phrase "quantum leap." However, I gasped (just a little) at your reference to Thomas Kuhn's phrase, paradigm shift -- "to describe a change in basic assumptions about the theory of science." Most people don't know that Kuhn himself abandoned the phrase in exasperation when it became obvious that postmodern theoreticians had seized it for use in such drama. His 1962 book on the philosophy of science, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" isn't about 3 or 4 paradigm shifts, it's about several hundred that occurred in the history of modern science, including the discovery of X-rays, and the invention of the battery.
Monday July 14th 2008, 12:59 PM
Comment by: Alfred C. (Ottawa Canada)
Thank you Nancy.
Informative and enjoyable, prompted me to go to Amazon.ca and purchase Trask's book "Say What You Mean".
Monday July 14th 2008, 1:38 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Suzanna--Count me among those who hadn't known this postscript to the "paradigm shift" story. Thanks for sharing it!

Alfred--Thanks for the kind words. I know you'll enjoy "Say What You Mean."
Monday July 14th 2008, 2:42 PM
Comment by: Paula E.
Every time someone corporate uses "symbiotic" to refer to two very compatible units, I want to know if they're talking about mutualism, commensalism or parasitism.
Monday July 14th 2008, 4:14 PM
Comment by: Diana P. (Floral Park, NY)
Nancy, what's your take on the figurative use of the phrase "quantum leap"? From _The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language http://www.bartleby.com/61/58/Q0015800.html

QUOTE
An abrupt change or step, especially in method, information, or knowledge: “War was going to take a quantum leap; it would never be the same” (Garry Wills).
END QUOTE
Monday July 14th 2008, 11:34 PM
Comment by: Patricia D. (Santa Clara, CA)
Fundamentally, scientific terms are precise. When these precise terms are appropriated for more figurative use, the lack of precision simply creates a murky reference.
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Morgane Danielou
How about "natural" to imply "good" as used by many in the environmental movement. I'm all for sustainable development and protecting our planet, but it seems to me that the plague, women dying young in child birth and many other bad things are perfectly natural!
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Diana P.--Patricia D. put it more elegantly than I could have. Dictionaries (even AHD, which is considered fairly conservative) report on trends in usage, and the lax use of "quantum leap," even by writers as astute as Garry Wills, is probably here to stay. That doesn't mean it's the appropriate term for any instance of "change."

Kristin S.--I agree. After all, arsenic is a naturally occurring substance, but it isn't particularly good for you.
Friday August 8th 2008, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Beau H. (RALEIGH, NC)
How about the word organic. It means derived from living organisms. But thanks to the perfect storm of Madison Ave. and the environmental movement the parameters of the word's definition have taken a quantum leap to mean only a fraction of the materials derived from living organisms; and I suspect some formally inorganic materials not derived from living organisms. I'm going to lose it when I see "Organic Salt".
Wednesday August 20th 2008, 10:14 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Beau H.--Agreed. I hate those inorganic cantaloupes; you could break your teeth on them!
Monday December 26th 2011, 11:01 AM
Comment by: sigrossman (Chevy Chase, MD)
Thank you Nancy. I recently heard quantum leap used again on On The Media (WNYC). Since I'm reading Quantum Story by Jim Bagget I was glad to find your concise explanation in this article to send to the show.

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