Last modified on 2 October 2013, at 22:58

Understanding Scientific Terms/Importance

Greek vase Dionysos attica 520 bC.jpg Understanding Scientific Terminology
Greek and Latin Roots of Scientific Terms.
Lessons: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Lesson 0 - Why learn Greek and Latin Word roots?Edit

Scientific, Engineering and Technical terms are often long, complicated words that can be confusing. But first, let us distinguish those familiar (but often confused) terms:

  • Science, means to study or know (literally to cut open) academically - often in a university research department
  • Engineering means ingenious, that is talented and practical, a blend of science and technology mostly occurring only one time, 'in the field'
  • Technology means to use skilfully - literally to treat or practice knowledge - a process often repeated, often in a laboratory or factory


Many people become anxious and unable to verbalize ('word blind') when they meet new, complicated terms such as electromyogram .

Don't Panic! Instead, eat your elephant one spoonful at a time - that means: build an understanding of the etymology or origin of words, and how to break them into component parts (prefix-root-suffix),
Scientific, engineering and technical terms need not be fearful even if you have never seen them before.
It is not really necessary to learn classical languages - just remember to check the word in Wictionary and try to remember its structure!

for example Electromyogram is made up of three word roots.

electr/o: having to do with electricity.
my/o  : muscle
-gram : a record or result

An electromyogram is a device that 'writes' a record of the electrical activity of a muscle, but an electromyograph. 'graphically' shows what is happening. A related word is meter which simply means 'to measure' (or sometimes as a noun, a length defined by the International Organization for Standardization or ISO)

Scientific terms are mostly made of Greek, Latin, or both mixed together, but sometimes borrowed from other languages too.

An understanding of even a few principles can go a long way in making science classes easier.
Some are very common! For example here are some common initial or prefix terms:

  • pre (before - as in prehistoric) and post after for example, after completing a message, one may finally 'post' (send) it!
  • hyper superior or big as in hypermarket) and hypo (under or inferior as in hypodermic syringe - which doctors insert under the skin (epidermis is outer + skin (that is visible)
  • epi (near as in epicentre) and a, ap or apo (away as in apology - away from logic)


Why? Originally, the roots of 'Arts and Sciences' developed in ancient Greece and were spread by the Roman empire (during the bronze and iron ages).

The classical languages (Latin and Greek) continued to be used until not so long ago, (about the 18th or 19th century). In fact, even in the twentieth century a formal description of a new plant species was required to be written in Latin (probably so that 'experts' could confuse the public and charge more for their services).

Thus many technical terms were constructed from other words long ago using these classical languages before English became dominant in the second half of the 20th century, and once established, we are stuck with them forever!