The language we use as scientists is often strangely divorced from that in the rest of the world; it makes sense to me to describe something as trivial when we can see how to get to the answer, whereas non-science friends may get upset by the description. To take a second example, consider the word ‘significant’; for me, loaded with statistical meaning and for others a vague statement. These tangles get worse when worlds collide – mathematicians will consider any of the language in my papers unbelievably sloppy – and worse of all when a term escapes the scientific lexicon and takes on a glorious life of its own; ask any physicist to define a ‘quantum leap’ and the answer you get will be very different from the one you expect.
All of this musing was triggered by a wonderfully discursive post on the Language Log blog about the origins of the ‘black’ part of a ‘black hole’, triggered by a reported incident when someone felt it had been used in a racist context. Language Log is essential reading for anyone who enjoys looking at language, whether scientist or not, by the way.
Sample quote : I’m afraid, though, that the search for collocational analogies for X hole, beyond X=black and X=white, is hampered by interference from unrelated patterns.