The Toxification of Words

Cross-posted from Island Press Field Notes

Disclaimer: Some words may have been harmed in the process of writing this blog

EPA Air Toxics Program on Toxic Air Pollutants, Risk Assessments, Releases, Health Risks, Evaluating Exposures, Carcinogen Risk (CD-ROM)As a scientist who fled from college course offerings beginning with ENG I fully regret this decision, particularly when sheepishly resorting to the synonym key, followed by a quick dash to Wikipedia for further advice on how to use words.  Words matter, particularly if one decides to go public with them.

And so it was with some chagrin that I read a recent email, taking me to task for my use of the word “toxics” which,  for lack of better words, I’ve pasted verbatim:

Let’s start by noting that “toxics” is not a word. “Toxic” is an adjective that describes the nature of something. There are toxic substances, toxic chemicals, toxic plants etc. Some chemicals are toxicants. There are toxic responses. “Toxics” is not a noun, just as “organics” is not a noun.

Ouch. In my defense aside from rarely using the word (although it’s far more melodic than the more proper toxicant), the offending word appears in the titles of numerous programs and reports sponsored by the EPA, NOAA, the USGS and countless others – maybe they skipped out of ENG too. Though you won’t find it in Merriam-Webster. That said, it’s not the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last that mis-nomenclature has brought out the pedantic nature of some scientists (myself included).

Last month the following interchange (see  here  and here) between Peter Chapman, editor of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, and fellow editor Graeme Batley was published in IEAM, wrote Batley:

Recently I became aware that the editor of Learned Discourses has a personal campaign for the abolition of the term ‘‘heavy metal.’’ As a long-time researcher of the environmental chemistry and ecotoxicology of heavy metals, I feel that I should present a defense of the term. In looking over my publications list, I noted that I have used the term ‘‘heavy metals’’ in the title of some 13 articles, and an untold number of times within these and many other publications. . . . .  Apart from our editor, the objections from within the environmental science community amount to less than a whimper, because most either feel comfortable with the term, or have no strong opinions one way or the other.

To which Chapman responded:

I thank Dr. Graeme Batley for his comments because they allow me to expand on my continuing objections to the use of the term ‘‘heavy metals.’’ There are good reasons why everyone, including Graeme, should stop using this undefined, incorrect, and misleading term. Just because a term is well-accepted does not mean we should not question it and, if necessary, stop using it . . . . Graeme, you have not sinned—yet—because you are still questioning. Go forth redeemed after saying 10 times ‘‘heavy metal is music not science’’

Details, details, but I can relate. For years I have railed against the use of the word toxin in place of toxicant (for more on that see the post to an earlier blog It’s Toxicants Stupid).  Still, when it comes to correct usage of toxin(toxic chemicals produced by living things – not counting synthetic chemicals made by our own species – those are toxicants) as much as I try to impress the difference upon my students, popular culture (including the news sections of well-respected science journals, which ought to know better) wins out. In their lexicon if it’s toxic, it’s a toxin.

And so, while I take the charges of misnomenclature quite seriously, there are times when the reader just knows what you mean. One of the joys of blogging is that it offers a release from the constraints of more formal scientific writing while not compromising on accuracy of information. And, as we all know, just as life evolves in response to toxic chemicals, words also evolve though in this case, perhaps in reference to toxics.

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