The word scientist is a relative newcomer to the English language. It was first coined 176 years ago by the Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science, William Whewell.
One of the founders of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Whewell bemoaned the disconnection between different practitioners of varied fields of science who were variously called "cultivators," "friends," or "men" of science.
In 1834, Whewell decided to create a term that might unite all these scholars. He considered and promptly dismissed, savans, or men of learning, for being both presumptuous and French; he worried that the German naturforscher "might suggest undignified compounds such as nature-poker or nature-peeper." Natural philosopher was simply "too wide and too lofty."
Eventually, Whewell suggested that "by analogy with artist, they might form scientist" but because of its similarity to words like economist and atheist, he prematurely dismissed the term as "not generally palpable." Nevertheless, he returned to it in 1840 in his classic book, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, to describe a cultivator of science in general. A review of his book in Blackwell’s Magazine, published that same year, put it even more succinctly; "Leonardo was mentally a seeker after truth—a scientist. Correggio was an asserter of truth—an artist."
A colleague of such scientific stars as Faraday and Darwin, Whewell was frequently called upon to help coin words for the new knowledge these men were describing. For Faraday, Whewell came up with "cathode," "anode," and "ion." One of his favorite words, however, was consilience, literally the "jumping together" of different branches of knowledge.
Which takes us back to scientist—Whewell’s 1834 neologism of artist and science. Given its etymology, it is clear that these two pursuits are not as disparate as they seem at first glance. Often, there is great art in great science; just as there is often great science in great art.
In this segment, we'll talk about the origins of the word 'scientist' and the history of its meaning.