6819740 visits

BSc (UWO), HBSc (UWO),
PhD (Laval)

Assistant Professor

Department of Biology
Faculty of Science
Faculty of Education
University of Ottawa

Science Education and
Science Communication
(Ecology, Evolution and
Environmental Science)

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Professeur adjoint

Département de biologie
Faculté des sciences
Faculté de l’Éducation
Université d’Ottawa

Pédagogie scientifique et communication scientifique
(Écologie, Évolution et Sciences


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An Etymological Approach to Learning Biological Terminology

With so many new terms to learn for each class, it can potentially become overwhelming for students. A common reaction is to try to cram it all into your head by memorization and hope it sticks. In reality, it usually doesn’t. Memorization of any amount of mundane facts is only a short-term storage of information and does not contribute to your knowledge over the long term. The solution: DON’T MEMORIZE ANYTHING! Ever.

The only way to truly remember something is by understanding it to the point of being able to explain it. This is especially true for the etymology (the study of words) of scientific terminology. After the initial fear of a newly encountered scientific term has faded, you may quickly realize that the word is composed of sub-units, some or all of which you recognize from somewhere else. In many cases, you will know what they mean in that other context and should apply the same meaning here. For example, you will recognize many of the prefixes:

  • Epi = on the surface
  • Endo = inside
  • Exo = outside
  • Hypo = less than/under
  • Hyper = more than/over
  • Proto = before
  • Pro = first
  • Deutero = second
  • Homo = same
  • Hetero = different
  • Hemi = half
  • Holo = whole

Apart from the prefixes, many words are composed of units that you will know, such as photosynthesis (photo = light + synthesis = create), which refers to the process by which plants create something (sugars) from light. Other words may appear foreign at first glance but you may not realize that you already know its components. For example, a group of fish that are thought to most closely resemble the ancestors of terrestrial tetrapods are known as sarcopterygian fish. This strange sounding name is composed of sarco + pteron, do you recognize them? Can you think of other words that contain the same roots?

Think of sarcophagus. It is a box in which we put dead people to decompose and the word means literally ‘flesh eating’ (tissue = sarco + eating = phagy). So ‘sarco’ refers to fleshy tissue. As for ‘pteron’, think of helicopter, a plane with one wing that turns in a circle. That is literally what the word ‘helicopter’ means: spinning (helix) wing (pteron). So ‘pteron’ implies a wing and you will now notice it popping up everywhere among the biological terminology… Diptera are flies (insects with 2 wings), pterodactyls are flying reptiles (with winged fingers), pterophytes are plants with wings (ferns with wing-like fronds).

Now back to the sarcopterygian fish… their name means fleshy wing, implying that their fins (wings) are not flat and spiny like most other (actinopterygian or ray-fin) fish, that they are fleshy and articulate, thus providing a pre-adaptation of limb support for vertebrate life on land and earning them the name Sarcopterygii.

All of this long-winded rambling about the meaning of fish names was meant to illustrate that most students should be able to understand the meaning of a new scientific term even before knowing to what it may refer. So don’t be afraid, go ahead and dissect newly discovered terms and you’ll find it much easier to understand their meaning and therefore to remember them and to know how to use and/or define them.