Saturday, July 2, 2011

words invented by Canadians

(a version of this article appeared in the Globe & Mail on July 1, Canada Day)


What words hath Canadians wrought?

Howard Richler

Now that Canada has reached the venerable age of 144, it is time to dispel the reductionist notion that our nation only represents the words snow and hockey. Truth be told snow predates our confederation by over a millennium and hockey is first mentioned in the Galway, Ireland statutes of 1527, a decade before Cartier paddled on the St.Lawrence River. On the other hand, the eclectic quartet of kerosene, cyberspace, ACTH and optics (PR sense) were all Canadian creations. Here are their stories.

In a church hall in Charlottetown,in 1846, Dr Abraham Gesner unveiled his discovery of “kerocene.” He coined the word by blending the Greek word for wax keros and the common scientific ending –ene. By devising a means of distilling kerosene from petroleum Gesner not only made an important industrial contribution but in the process he may have also prevented the extinction of whales. At the dawn of the industrial age, whales were an important natural resource that humans had been exploiting for centuries. Whales were especially valued for their oil, which was used primarily as fuel for lamps. So thirty years after Gesner discovered kerosene the fleet of whaling ships had shrunk by 95% because kerosene was more economical than whale oil.

The word cyberspace was coined by Canadian author William Gibson and appeared in his science fiction novel Neuromancer in 1984. Actually, the first citation of the word comes two years earlier in an article Gibson wrote in the science magazine Omni: “It looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the ‘Cyberspace Seven’, but I'd rebuilt it so many times that you’d have had a hard time finding a square millimetre of factory circuitry in all that silicon.” Cyberspace is a back-formation of the word “cybernetics,” the study of automatic control systems in both machines and living things. This word had been coined in 1948 by mathematician Norbert Wiener and comes from the Greek, kybernetes, meaning “steersman.” Gibson used the word cyberspace to refer to the virtual reality landscape within networked computers as it is experienced by humans. Since 1990, the word has moved into mainstream usage to refer to the imagined locale where electronic data goes. So if your looking for someone to blame for cyberterrorism, cyberstalking and cyberdreck - Gibson's your man.
ACTH , the acronym for adrenocorticotrophic hormone, is produced by the pituitary gland, which stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce steroid hormones. It was first isolated and named in 1933 at McGill University by biochemist James Collip in 1933, who was born in Belleville, Ontario. As a prelude to his discovery and its contribution to words “made in Canada,” earlier in his career, Collip had assisted Banting in the isolation of insulin.
While the word optics referring to the branch of physics that deals with light was invented centuries before the birth of Canada, we Canucks rightfully own the modern sense of optics to refer to the public perception of things. To wit, on April 7, 1983 the Globe and Mail featured the headline Optics Is Name of Game and the article elucidated that “They say in Larry Grossman's health ministry, it's all a matter of optics. This has nothing to do with the eyes, but is has everything to do with the way the public sees things.” This represents the first citation of optics in this context and it would take more than two years until the word was similarly used in the USA in a article in Wall Street Journal. I'm sure the reason optics debuted in Canada was because it was borrowed from our French brethr. For in French, the word optique refers not only to the science of optics but also to visual appearance in general. According to a contact at the OED, the Canadian-inspired sense of optics should make its debut in the venerable dictionary in 2012.
So on Friday raise a glass of Canadian Club, Molson Canadian or one of Canada Dry not only to our land but also to our inventive wordsmiths. Have yourselves a joyous Canada Day.


 Howard's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

1 comment:

  1. It seems the U.S. was using "optics" about five years before your 1983 date.