May 16, 2014

In the face of outright hostility on the part of many people, scientists would be well advised to keep our pants on.  If rotting leaves on the forest floor are “leaf mold,” I have little problem with calling something slimy from the same place “slime mold.”  I do have problems with “social amoeba.”  “Sociable” would do or “associative,” but they are not always in visible association.  I was much taken with your slime mold race story (The Game Is On NATURE vol. 509 no. 7499 May 8, 2014 page 134) until it emerged that the enthusiasts wish to saddle us with their verbal invention.

Science is rife with misnomers like “atom,” “animal” and “creature,” but the words are valuable because they are well defined and widely known.  Nobody has the clout to suggest changing them.  When I first learned from a marine biologist that “starfish” was being changed to “sea star,” my first reaction was, “Somebody is being paid too much.”  I may not be alone.  “Well it’s not a fish.”  “Nor is it a star, nor is its habitat coterminous with the full volume of places we call ‘seas.’”   

Starfish is a valuable word.  “Star fish,” might be a problem, but “starfish” could equally mean “the saint of yapping dogs” or “resembling a starf.”  There is monetary value, too.  Your income in dollars is more or less equal to the size of your vocabulary.  Take a word away from me and you have nicked me for about 40 bucks; multiply that by 300 million Americans and you are talking real money.  And every lost word puts another veil between us and the priceless past. 

It’s a pity I am turned off.  My own interest in consanguinity and fertility (yes, I know, amoeba have no blood) needs suitable experimental models, and slime mold might just be one, but for me not now.  It’s a matter of boffins strutting their stuff.  If anybody wants to see genitalia, there is an industry that will provide that more cost effectively.


M. Linton Herbert MD

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