A History of Biotech Via Its Entry Into the English Language

Dictionary with animated letters floating above it

Merriam-Webster has a new search tool that allows you to look up words that first appeared in the year you were born. And, in case you were born in 1500, that’s the furthest back you can search. Hey, old-timer!

It’s actually something of a black hole of productivity. Popping in my date of birth (1964) I found it was the first year the word “condo” appeared, as well as more science-oriented words like “DMSO” and “fentanyl” and “naloxone.” It was also the first year the word “mitochondrial DNA” and “dweeb” appears, along with “gun control” and “talking head.” Make of that what you will.

STAT recently took to creating a timeline of science and biotech using the search tool. They note, among other things, that “CRISPR” came into the dictionary in 2002 and “RNAi” made its first entry in 1998.

In an attempt to avoid overlap, here’s a BioSpace timeline that starts 50 years ago, and mixes new scientific terms with language that is common today.

1968 –There is plenty of interest to the biopharma and life science industry. They include “affinity chromatography” and “benign prostatic hyperplasia.”Others include “coronavirus” and “Epstein-Barr virus.” It was also a year in which “traveler’s diarrhea,” “telemedicine” and “cash bar” made the dictionary.

1970 –“Bioethics” made the list in 1970, as did the word “biomimetics” and “gene therapy. ”For scientists, it was a year when “hairy cell leukemia,” “clonazepam” and “clozapine” entered the vocabulary, as did “control freak,” “dorky” and “T cell.”

1975 – “Cat scan” and “alternative rock” as well as “analyte” and “bioinformatics.” It was also the year “adult-onset diabetes” made the dictionary, as well as “killer T cell” and “natural killer cell.” Also: “psychobabble” and “retrovirus.”

1976 – A year later, also the Bicentennial of the U.S.A., “Ames test” and “cyclosporine” and “Ebola virus” became official words. Others include “insulin-like growth factor” and “Legionnaires’ disease” and “restless legs syndrome.”

1980 – In 1980, Jimmy Carter was still president, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl and the Rubik’s Cube made its international debut at The British Toy and Hobby Fair, Earl’s Court, London. 

New science words included “bioethanol” and “biorefinery” and “bird flu.” “Insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus” and “interferon alpha” also made the dictionary along with “T-helper cell” and “topoisomerase.” Also making the list, “wind farm,” “immunoblot” and “high five.”

1986 – This year was marked by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster as well as the founding of Pixar Animation Studios. New science words in the dictionary included “HIV-1,” “HIV,” “HIV-2” and “human immunodeficiency virus.” It was also the first time that “insulin resistance syndrome” and “prion disease” made it into the dictionary. Other words include “junk e-mail,” “boy band” and “drag-and-drop.”

1990 – 1990 was the same year that “mixed martial arts” and “tighty-whities” made the list. It was also the same year that “World Wide Web” entered the dictionary. For the most life science-oriented, “gene editing” and “transmissible spongiform encephalopathy” became new official words.

1995 – “Proteome” became a word in 1995, as did “functional genomics” and “sildenafil.” It was also the year “webcast,” “wiki” and “date-rape drug” became official parts of the language.

2000 – This wasn’t a big year for science words, although it did give us “google” as a verb, and “Sudoku.”

2001 – A year later the language picked up “microRNA” and “miRNA” as well as “twerking,” “tadalafil” and everyone’s not-so-favorite computer term, “force quit.”

The closer to today, the fewer new words are added, probably as the editors wait to see if they stick. And it ends at 2016.

2008 –“Exome” hit the list (along with “mansplain” and “photobomb” and “Bitcoin.”)

2016 – Five words were added in 2016. They are:

Muscovium: a synthetic chemical element with the symbol Mc and atomic number 115.

Nihonium: a synthetic chemical element with the symbol Nh and atomic number 113.

Oganesson: a synthetic chemical element with the symbol Og and atomic number 118.

Tennessine: a synthetic chemical with the symbol Ts and atomic number 117.

Utility token: this, according to Merriam-Webster is “a digital token of cryptocurrency that is issued in order to fund development of the cryptocurrency and that can be later used to purchase a good or service offered by the issuer of the cryptocurrency.”

And, of course, Merriam-Webster notes that in the year 1500, “illness” first showed up as a word.

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