The Impact of Science on the Victorian Vocabulary

File:William Whewell.jpg

William Whewell in the 1860s

In 1834, the words ‘scientist’ and ‘physicist’ were coined by Reverend William Whewell. Previously, the practitioners of science had been known as ‘natural philosophers’ or ‘men of science’; I prefer ‘scientist’ as it is a gender neutral term as well as more accurate than ‘natural philosopher’. Whewell was a polymath, neologist, scientist, science historian, philosopher, poet and Anglican priest, as well as a Master of Trinity College in Cambridge. His breadth and depth of knowledge was astounding. He coined many words that would come to dominate the vocabulary of the 19th and 20th centuries; his didn’t just coin the terms ‘scientist’, ‘physicist’, he suggested the terms ‘ion’, ‘dielectric’, ‘anode’, and ‘cathode’ to Michael Faraday. This is what happens when you have a brilliant rational mind who is also a poet … magic happens. He used the word ‘artist’ to inspire ‘Scientist’ and physicist’, and you can’t get a more Steampunk concept than that.

File:M Faraday Th Phillips oil 1842.jpg

Michael Faraday

Because of the sudden increase in technology, and massive interest in science, in the Industrial era, the Victorian era saw the addition of many words to the languages of the world. Whewell was just one of many neologists coining new words, but, for me, he holds a special place for creating the word ‘scientist’, because my first degree was in zoology and I am a scientist as well as a writer. With all the new discoveries taking place, there had to be lexical innovations to match.

The new scientific terms were – and still are – made by adapting words from the Latin or Greek for the most part, or by mashing up to existing words to create a Portmanteau word.

The use of jargon is prevalent in every field of human endeavour, to keep the knowledge secret and unavailable to outsiders, and this included the all the fields of science. During the 19th century, medicine had a run on naming of the inflammations of various organs: resulting in such words as ‘tonsillitis’ (1801) and ‘appendicitis’ (1886). As you might guess, the original intention for these neologisms was that the meanings of these words were not obvious to a layperson, such as men without a classical education and the majority of women. However, over time, jargon words tend to become part of the vocabulary of the general population. (Take that you snobs and misogynists.)

As science opened up into more fields, so did scientists adventure into new territories; botanists searching for new plants; zoologists searching for new animals; geologists searching for new minerals; anthropologists searching for undiscovered tribes of humanity. Each new discovery needed a name. In 1857, German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller named the Australian macadamia nut, giving the genus the scientific name Macadamia (no, it isn’t a native of Hawai’i, so stop calling it the Hawai’ian nut, it is the Queensland nut).

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin, English explorer, naturalist, biologist, and geologist


Alfred Russel Wallace, the explorer, geographer, anthropologist, naturalist, and biologist

Sometimes the English language borrowed the words from the local language. For an example, ‘kiwi’ entered the language in 1835, borrowed from the Maori language. Kiwis are flightless birds native to New Zealand, in the genus Apteryx and family Apterygidae. So the discovery of the kiwis meant three new words entered the English language and the worldwide scientific lexicon.


So many new words entered the English language, among the other languages, during the 19th century. As a writer, I can either

  1. check every scientific word I use in my Steampunk novel, to ensure it was in use;
  2. or I can try to minimise the use of jargon words and avoid the issue of dating words;
  3. or I can embrace the use of a full scientific vocabulary for the sake of clarity.

I generally choose the third path, with a friendly nod to the first and second options. Clarity trumps all, but I do attempt to keep the jargon words down to a minimum, and try not to overuse anachronistic words. My aim is always to make my prose readable. A lot of jargon words might confuse or alienate my audience, as might using words that have fallen out of use.

There are plenty of books and websites to help you source 19th century words and scientific terms. Remember, Steampunk is a subgenre of Science Fiction, and you need to make sure the science sounds plausible. Using the correct terms always helps your verisimilitude.


Filed under Historical Personage, History, Science, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre

5 responses to “The Impact of Science on the Victorian Vocabulary

  1. I generally agree with your choice of the third path wile keeping the first and second in mind. As a scientist, my first impulse is to go down the third path, although that can lead to some pretty dry and technical sentences. So, I temper it a bit. Still, I believe that anyone reading a steampunk novel should have some interest in reading about the latest aetheric gadget whether or not the “technical description” behind it is scientifically correct, or just *seems* scientifically correct.

  2. dekore

    My bosses and editors always insist on option 2. The engineers that I communicate insist on option 3. I try to stay 1ish when I can. There are option wars going on out here.

    • While I was at university (doing my degree in Creative Writing, not the Science degree) I was a member of a ‘plain English’ group. The option wars were quite the most entertaining part of the group. However, I imagine it is much harsher and more stressful to have such doings going on at work.

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