The great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) understood the importance of names in science

The great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) understood the importance of names in science. ’A well-composed language.will bring in its train a necessary and immediate revolution in the method of teaching.the logic of the sciences is thus essentially dependent on their language,’ he wrote. And it was he who (with others) introduced the idea of a systematic naming system for chemistry. Some of his chemical concepts were wrong, but have been built into our naming system nevertheless. Oxygen, for example, is from the French oxygène, or acid-giver, as it was thought that oxygen was the essential component of acids. Even though ideas about the causes of acidity changed, the name of the element oxygen stuck. 

Lavoisier rather forced his theories onto the scientists of the time by writing his textbook, Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, entirely in his new language. Thus if one were to understand what Lavoisier meant by an ’oxide’, a replacement for the old word ’calx’, one would implicitly agree with Lavoisier that the gas taken from the air to form such a substance had to be oxygen - a contentious theory back in the 18th century. Cleverly, the name oxide implied some characteristics of the object it described.

All names, to some extent give attributes to the objects or concepts they describe. That is all very well, if such attributes are intended. Oxide was intended to suggest the presence of oxygen. Our modern systematic names describe, to those in the know, a molecule’s structure. But non-scientists aren’t in the know. And rather unfortunately they often associate extra meanings with words which, to chemists, are simply informative or technical. This, I believe, contributes to public misunderstanding and distrust of chemistry. 

Take our systematic naming system, of which Lavoisier would have wholeheartedly approved. Unfortunately, the names are so long that to non-chemists they seem pointless and incomprehensible, or worse, to be hiding something. Even trivial names of marketed drugs suffer from this. The names imply characteristics of the compounds they describe: complicated, tricky, and by extension, not to be trusted.  

This applies also to the words ’synthetic’ and ’natural’. To a chemist, they simply indicate the origins of the chemical. But a non-scientist thinks of many other unintended associations: natural often implies good; and synthetic, by comparison, bad. This distinction usually relies on the other meanings of natural: safe, normal, healthy, and so on, which have no relevance to the word as used in a chemical context. Advertisers, of course, are quite happy to blur the lines. 

The division between natural and synthetic is further reinforced because synthetic chemicals, even the trivial ones, invariably have long names. Natural chemicals do have long names too, but they are hardly ever used, the emphasis being on shorter, traditional names. A bar of soap may have sodium olivate, sodium palmitate and sodium cocoate as its ingredients, but it is more likely to list the ’natural’ olive oil, palm oil and coconut oil. Thus natural chemicals, by association from their names, seem simpler and generally nicer.  

How to change this misunderstanding? One answer is to stress that the natural chemical is a chemical like any other, by using the unfamiliar longer name. Here’s an extreme example from research chemist Derek Lohmann, in Sense about science: ’If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatechin, 3-galloyl epigallocatechin and inorganic salts, would you take it? It sounds pretty ghastly. If instead you were offered a cup of tea, you would probably take it.’

But the best solution is surely education. If people understood (however sketchily) the point of our systematic naming system, chemical names would be less likely to attract derogatory associations. And that would make both chemists and the public a lot happier. 

Richard van Noorden