These words mean something radically different to scientists

2 min read

Here’s a hypothesis: Unless you work in a lab, you aren’t aware of the secret synonyms for everyday words used (almost) exclusively by scientists. The next time you utter one of these words, you can also throw in a fun fact that's sure to cement your reputation as a science nerd.

Culture

When most of us talk about culture, we’re speaking about the customs, rituals, arts, and achievements that define a place. A scientist talking about bacteria culture isn’t referring to hip-hop music. He or she is referring to the verb form of culture, which means to grow. This application is becoming better known thanks to the rise of cultured (or fermented) foods such as kombucha and kefir.

Vitriol

Today we use this word often in a literary context to describe hateful speech or a bitter critique. The word's etymology tracks since it is the original name for sulfuric acid from the Latin word “vitrum” meaning glass.

Trial

Both the standard understanding of this word and the scientific iteration relate to testing, but most of us think of a trial as a legal proceeding, while lab workers know trials as controlled tests for experimentation.

Basic

There’s the actual definition of basic, which means simple, plain, or essential, and the currently trending slang definition, which means to be criticized for liking things that are utterly popular. Then there’s also the scientific definition, which refers to a fundamental knowledge of something and the second scientific definition, which describes basic substances as alkaline or having a pH greater than seven. Who knew such a simple word could be so complex?

Sandwich

This one is kind of cute. Much like a sandwich you eat, scientists pack gels (the filling) between membranes and filter paper (like bread). They then use an electrical current to move biological molecules between layers to create what they deem a sandwich.

Cosmopolitan

Cosmopolitan means suave, sophisticated, chic, and widely distributed? The study of biogeography describes a taxon (biological species or family) that extends across most or all of the world as cosmopolitan. Congrats, cockroaches. At least scientists think you’re classy!

Cleavage

Both the standard and scientific definitions of this word refer to gaps. There’s the cleavage you might show if you’re wearing a low-cut shirt, but if you’re also an earth scientist, cleavage relates to how some rocks, minerals, and crystals break along a defined plane when struck or hit.

Mole

Whether you think of moles as spies or rodents, chemists actually use the term "mole" differently. It’s a scientific unit to measure large quantities of tiny molecules or particles.

Fitness

Scientists aren't talking about your ability to bench press 250 pounds when they talk fitness. Instead they’re referring to the ability to survive to reproductive age — a concept made relevant by Darwin.

Immortal

The gods are real in a scientist’s lab if they’re dealing with immortal cells of some type, which means they have the ability to replicate indefinitely. The popular nonfiction book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” contains a double entendre. It expresses Lacks’ notoriety in science and states that her cells were the first ones observed to be immortal, as it relates to this definition.

Significant

Anything momentous in our lives such as people, dates, and events can be considered significant. For scientists, significant findings simply suggest things are statistically supported to have less than a five percent chance of being incorrect. This definition is just a little more clinical than the civilian definition.

Photo Credit: HRAUN/ iStock

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