"Gen" words in teaching

Subject: "Gen" words in teaching
From: "Doug, Data Librarian at Ext 4225" <engstromdd -at- PHIBRED -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 6 Jan 1995 10:54:38 -0600


Tom Zinnen has kindly given me permission to post the following article,
which has appeared on the BCEPP (biotechnology) list and will appear in the
Jan 15 issue of Genetic Engineering News.

Although the content is primarily relevant to people who have to explain
biotechnology, I think the technique has broader application and would be
useful in explaining many complex technical issues


Doug "Farm policy, although it's complex,
ENGSTROMDD -at- phibred -dot- com can be explained. What it can't be
is believed."
- P.J. O'Rourke

The preceding opinions and positions are mine alone, and are only
coincidentally related to those of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.

[Begin Attached Article]

In the Beginning Was the Word: Using Etymological Roots in Teaching

Thomas M. Zinnen
Biotechnology Education Specialist
University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center
608/265-2420, zinnen -at- macc -dot- wisc -dot- edu

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn has been credited with this admonition: Guard every
word, for every distinct word expresses a distinct idea, and when the word
dies, so does the idea.

Although we live in a popular culture driven by images, the spoken word remains
the most common and most personal form of communication. Words have at least
two advantages: they're portable and they're infectious. Words can be toted
and shared in two forms: spoken or written. Unlike projected visual images,
your audience can take home word images, and they can share them with others.

A dictionary that not only defines words but explains their origins is useful
to help you as a speaker or teacher show connections between words and the
ideas they represent. Using word plays allows you to start with something
familiar to your audience. Connecting something new to something familiar
strikes me as a good way to learn.

Some Interactive Word Plays: The Gen Words

Here's an example of how a progression of related words can illuminate the
evolution of related ideas. Take these words: genesis, genes, genie, genius,
ingenious, ingenuity, ingenieur, engineer. All but the French word "ingenieur"
are non-technical, ordinary English. Going through these words will help an
audience understand why the term "genetic engineering" can generate gut-level
concern in some people. Try a question-and-answer approach, with the audience

oWhat's the first book of the bible? Genesis, and it's about origins,
beginnings, inheritance.
oWhat do you get if you knock off the "is"? Genes.
oWhat do you get if you rub a lamp, and you're lucky? A genie.
oAnd if the genie's real smart, what can you can call it? A genius.
oIf it's skillful with its hands, how can you describe it? It's ingenious.
oIn French, someone with ingenuity can be called an "ingenieur". In English,
what do we call "ingenieurs"? Engineers.

In most other languages from western Europe, the word for someone who designs
and builds still retains the "ingenuity" root. I find the dyslexia of English
in its spelling of "engineer" dismaying because that "e before i" has
disconnected the word from its origins.

This series of Gen Words doesn't define "genetic engineering" in a rigorous
sense. But it captures some of the key connotations of a term that is
traceable back to the early 1940's--30 years before cut-and-splice recombinant
DNA techniques.

The Essence of Tools

"Just what is biotechnology?" is the most common question audiences ask me.
Defining biotechnology shows the usefulness of etymological roots. Using the
dictionary, you can set forth the wide meaning of "using living organisms to
make a product" or the narrow meaning of "recombinant DNA techniques." But
using the same dictionary, you can mine more ideas from underlying words of

As every biology student know, "bios" is ancient Greek for "life." The "techno"
comes from another Greek word meaning "tools" or "skillfully made." It's the
same word used in the Greek "Pentateuch" referring to the first five books of
the Bible, meaning the "five tools."

"Logos" is remarkable in its depth of meanings. Most people know it means
"study of." But it also can mean "word" or "essence" as used in the New
Testament. Using the lexicographer's lever, the root ideas of biotechnology
become "the essence of tools from living things."

As a distinct term, Robert Budd of the Science Museum in London has traced
"biotechnology" back to at least 1917, when during the World War Europeans used
the term to describe yeast-based industrial processes developed to supplement
or replace industrial processes based on petroleum.

This illustrates for the audience the fluid nature of the meanings we assign to
words, and how older terms sometimes are applied to newer tools, while
connotations dance and dodge with denotations. It also prepares them to analyze
how proponents and opponents of a technology try to put their own spin on

What distinguishes "science", "technology", and "engineering" ?

This question is not just semantics. Science teachers at all levels need to be
able to describe how science differs from other ways of knowing. At the
university level, this question is at its core about the academic freedom to
pursue new knowledge. At the industrial level, it's about the regulation of
the use and commercialization of new tools and products that may result from
new knowledge.

I once asked a representative of the National Science Foundation to distinguish
between "science" and "engineering." Since NSF had distinct funding categories
for science and for engineering, I figured they had a good definition to
distinguish between the two. The NSF person adroitly replied that NSF makes
the same distinctions that scientists and engineers make.

So, how do you define "science"? Here the ancient origins can help make modern
distinctions between similar ideas.

Science comes from the Latin "scio" meaning "I know." Scio derives from the
Latin infinitive "scire" meaning "to know," and is akin to "scindere" meaning
to cut or to split. Scindere is traceable to the Greek "schizein" meaning to
split, and that's traceable to the Sanskrit "chinatti" meaning 'he splits'.

So science is not just encyclopedic catalogs: it's splitting, separating,
discerning among ideas. It is reductionist to its etymological core.

This introduces the concept of Science as Scissors. It takes two opposing
knives to make a scissors; it takes at least two opposing ideas to do
experimental science. As Thomas Chamberlin wrote a century ago, science is
about the testing by empirical experiments of multiple competing hypotheses.
The generation of many competing explanations, and the use of empirical
intellectual scissors to test those explanations, are key differences between
science and other ways of knowing.

Using this approach, science refers to "tested knowledge", technology refers to
"tools" and engineering to "ingenuity" in innovation. They are not mutually
exclusive and are arguably mutually dependent. Yet they are different words
expressing distinct ideas.

Just as genealogical studies won't answer all aspects of the question "Where
did I come from?", etymological word plays won't answer all aspects of "What
does this word 'science' mean?" But they are good places to start.

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