The Standing Invitation

The N-Word

with 2 comments

What are words for? They are for communicating ideas. A good word is one that does this well. I was recently made very annoyed by a self-professed etiquette expert who tried to claim that “Cheers” doesn’t mean “Thank you”, and that people who say “Cheers” to thank people are just confusing things.

No, actually. When I want to thank someone, when I have a picture in my head of me thanking someone, it induces my larynx, lungs and lips to utter the word “Cheers”, which passes through the air to my friend’s ears, where it forms a picture in his head of being thanked. The reason there is no ambiguity is that I knew what effect the sound “/tʃɪəz/” would have on his brain. For him, and for me, “Cheers” does mean “Thank you.” That’s what meaning means.

With this in mind, I must say I have a real problem with the N-word.

And by “the N-word”, I of course mean “nanotechnology.”

I think that nanotechnology is a bad word, because it is poor at conveying meaning. Two people can have a conversation about nanotechnology and be thinking of completely unrelated things.

But nanotechnology is engineering on the nanometre scale. What could be confusing about that?

My problem with it is that it brings together under one term a whole bunch of disciplines that are in no way related, and treats them as one thing. A discussion about nanotechnology might involve self-cleaning glass, artificial life, buckminsterfullerene, molecular machines, mechanosynthesis, nanoparticles, nanotubes or (thank you very much, Prince Charles*) “grey goo”. These are not different branches of one discipline; they are different disciplines. Applying it to chemistry is particularly annoying: chemists already do their engineering with molecules, which are pretty small to begin with.

Is this harmful? I think so. Because it is seen to be quite reasonable now to have a position on the “dangers of nanotechnology”; indeed, it may be politically difficult not to have a position on it, as though this was something that could meaningfully be discussed as a single topic. Try to imaging the same people having a position on the “dangers of engineering”. Or imagine some word x that acts as an umbrella term for football, cheese, 1970s Norwegian architecture and cacti. What are the dangers of x? How can this question be answered?

People who are not experts in this field ­– these fields – cannot be blamed for not understanding it. But when adding the word ‘nano’ to a term on a scientific paper makes it seem more important, there will always be a temptation for scientists to use it gratuitously. Everyone has their favourite example; my own is ‘nanomolecules’. This promotes confusion where there needn’t be any, and promotes legislation where there shouldn’t be any.

If someone can suggest a definition of nanotechnology that covers a large share of the things that people use the word for, that is not already an older term from physics or chemistry, I would be interested to hear it. But in the meantime, I would offer that “nano” means “the preceding numerical term has been multiplied by 10-9”, and every time it gets used out of this precisely defined context, God kills a kitten.




* To be quite fair, he never used the term “grey goo”.  What he said was: “I do not believe that self-replicating robots, smaller than viruses, will one day multiply uncontrollably and devour our planet … Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the realms of science fiction.” I couldn’t agree more.


Written by The S I

September 10, 2011 at 11:59 pm

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I wonder if this reasoning is extensible. And by extensible I mean a word that, if told to a crowd of people during a talk, will be understood by everyone.


    September 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    • Ah yes, ‘extensibility’, the word that haunts me. But there is a difference between technical jargon, which has a well-defined meaning to some group of people even if the intended audience doesn’t recognise it, and nonsense, where the word actually has no meaning to anyone, including the speaker.

      The S I

      September 14, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: