SmarTerms 13: Orismology

World Wide Words explains that the creation of the term orismology was an attempt by entomologists William Kirby and William Spence to replace “terminology”, which they didn’t like because it was formed by a Latin stem and a Greek suffix. In this way, in an 1816 publication, they coined their own term: orismology.

Although its use is rare, I thought it would be interesting to learn a little bit of history about it. World Wide Words also explains that orismology, besides being an alternative to terminology is also defined as “the science of defining technical terms” by some major dictionaries such as the Merrian Webster.

According to the Wikipedia, “Orismology is the identification, specification, and description of technical terms. The word is constructed from the Greek: orismos (definition) and logos (word, reasoning, study).” In their Introduction to Entomology, Kirby and Spence indicated that: “In the terminology, or what, to avoid the barbarism of a word compounded of Latin and Greek, [Kirby and Spence] would beg to call orismology of the science, they have endeavoured to introduce throughout a greater degree of precision and concinnity* in the terms used to talk about insects.” This approach to naming is particularly applied to disciplines in natural sciences like Kirby and Spence’s entomology that depend upon classificatory schemes, such as taxonomies and ontologies, to organize, name, and address their subject matter.”

In his 1998 paper “The Distinction between Terminology versus Orismology and Its Application to Mathematical Chemistry“, Seymour B. Elk, explains the difference between Orismology and Terminology, with the following example:

“The drug name penicillin was coined by Alexander Fleming from the Latin for paintbrush, which is penicillus. Methicillin, a type of penicillin, gained its name by attaching the stem -cillin (from the United States Adopted Names Council’s list of stems) to a prefix meth which has no inherent meaning. The study of penicillin and methicillin individually would be an etymological study of terminology. However, the study of methicillin as its name derived from penicillin historically might best be described, according to Elk, as orismologic.”

The abstract of this publication also says that: “Two important terms, terminology and orismology are examined, assigning the currently accepted definition of a term in a specific discipline to terminology and the evolutionary history of that term to orismology.”

Elk also published two series of “Orismology (the science of defining words) and the geometrical foundations of chemistry”; one about polymers (a type of molecule) and another one about amino acids, links to which you may find in his 1998 paper above.

Other definitions found are:

  • The Imperial Dictionary: “that branch of natural history which relates to the explanation of the technical terms of the science.”
  • The Oxford English Dictionary: “rare. A name for the explanation of technical terms, or for such terms collectively; terminology.”

* Concinnity: harmony, symmetry, balance.



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