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It's All Greek to Me

When I attended a Master’s Thesis Defense in Austria some years ago, I was astonished to hear one student asked (among other things) about the etymology of the term “chromatography.” I thought, “OK, that’s a good way to break the ice in what is an admittedly awkward situation – being questioned in front of a live audience.” But it would appear I was wrong. The question posed was a serious one, which made the student uncomfortable and didn’t prove so easy to answer.

I love to narrate this true story to my sixth semester students of instrumental analytical chemistry. I feel it’s important to familiarize the students with scientific terms when I teach the introductory chapters of chromatographic techniques, but I always receive the same reaction. They don’t believe it is pragmatic. For them, the meaning of the word is more than obvious. Chromatography is derived from Greek words: chroma (color) and graphein (to write).

Of course, this is far from the only Greek word in the wider scientific terminology. Medical students, for example, will encounter numerous Greek-based terms, but they aren’t they only ones. Many chemistry terms also find their roots in the Greek language (ancient and modern variants alike); analytical (and analysis), organic, inorganic, physical, and biological are just a few examples. Even the word chemistry has Greek origins (though there is debate as to whether it is actually derived from the Arabic word “alchemy”). In the former case, the word has been altered to give a spelling that means “to pour” – giving the science of liquids.

In most cases, the etymology is clear, as is the case in terms like atom, ion, dialysis, osmosis, chiral, enantiomeric, stereomeric, and isomeric (and if it’s not clear: they are all Greek!). But why is such knowledge important? Some chemical elements are named using Greek words that describe their physical or chemical properties – useful information, I’m sure you’d agree. For example, the suffix “-gen” – as in hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen – means “giving birth,” and the first part of the word indicates what is produced from a reaction with these elements (such as the production of water through hydrogen combustion).

These elements are not alone. Chlorine and iodine are named after the colors green and violet, respectively, chromium is derived from the word for color, barium comes from heavy, and so on. Elements like helium (sun), selenium (moon), lithium (stone), argon (slow, inactive), neon (new), krypton (hidden) and praseodymium (from leek-green color and twin) also have names indicative of their properties. What’s more, Greek words can also be found in prefixes and suffixes of numerous other terms. Number-based prefixes like mono, poly, di, tri and tetra are all Greek, as are prefixes, such as iso- (equal), anti- (opposite), meta- (1,3 substitution), ortho- (adjacent substitution), para- (directly opposite substitution), glyco- (sweet), amphi- (both), micro- (small), mega- (big), and meso- (intermediate). Aromatic (derived from aroma), aliphatic (derived from fat), pentane, hexane, octane, energy, enthalpy, entropy… The list goes on and on, even extending to the names of techniques and instrument components.

I would argue that Greek scientists have an advantage in their studies. Even if they are unaware of the meaning of a word, they can come to some (accurate) conclusions with relative ease. When it comes to me and my students, I guess this is one of the few instances where the expression “it’s all Greek to me” means the opposite of what was intended… For the rest of you, when it comes to understanding fundamental chemistry and the techniques employed in analytical labs, I’d say a little Greek knowledge can go a long way!

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About the Author
Victoria Samanidou

Victoria Samanidou is based at the Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki, Greece.

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