Words come and go. “Consumption” was a disease feared in the late 1800's as much as cancer is feared today. As many as one-in-seven Europeans died of consumption.
The disease was called consumption because of the sunk-in appearance of the chest — the disease “consumed” the body. Victims often spat up blood, had a chronic cough and eventually wasted away.
In 1882, the great German bacteriologist Robert Koch detected the bacterium of tuberculosis that was one major cause. Other ailments with similar symptoms soon became understood as well. Pneumonia, the collection of fluids in the lung, could be caused by bacteria or viruses. And there was emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and various forms of lung cancers.
Today, the term “consumption” is no longer used. It has been replaced by dozens of more specific terms. Those words provide more understanding, more control over outcomes, and more compassionate and productive discussions. Today’s dictionaries are bigger than the dictionaries of the 1800's.
In the 1990's, some science education folks from Schools of Education woke up to the fact that there were more new words to learn in a high school biology book than there were in the books we use to study Spanish or French! They convinced textbook publishers to remove all of the technical terms. They told science teachers to just “teach the concepts” and not the terms. These ivory tower education experts were clueless about semantics (the science of word meanings). But classroom teachers were not. For about six years, teachers used worksheets and word lists on the blackboards to supplement the gutted textbooks. Publishers finally saw their mistake and gave science teachers what they needed. And again today, science textbooks have more new terms than are found in foreign language books.
It is not just useless “jargon.” To be educated is to communicate in more detail.
We can see this in the vocabulary and training of medical doctors. In the late 1700's, the early doctor William Beaumont dangled various foods into the stomach of a French fur-trapper who had accidently shot himself and caused a large opening into his stomach. Beaumont had only apprenticed under another doctor. He had never attended college.
By the mid 1800's, Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, only had two years of college. I enjoy telling my sophomore biology students that at the end of this year, they could begin practicing medicine — 150 years ago!
Of course, today a medical doctor must study well beyond the bachelor’s and masters degree level to understand the specialized terminology that is required to practice medicine today. And you can be sure that in the future, the number of years that doctors must study to be at the forefront of their field will require even more additional years of study. Their advanced knowledge will involve more words that are yet to be invented.
And that poses a very interesting dilemma. In spite of claims that humans are living longer, that is simply not true. Yes, long ago there were very few folks who lived to our maximum old age. Today, a greater portion of us live to that old age. But there is no evidence at all that this upper limit of 115 or 116 years can be moved further upward. Therefore, using the time we train doctors as an example, if it takes more and more time for us to learn the greater knowledge of the future, will we come to a point where civilization can no longer advance? As we approach that limit, will we be able to take children at very young ages and narrow their education and specialize them so they can make a few more new discoveries before they die of old age? We are far from reaching that barrier.
But for many generations now, parents have marveled when their students come home with a knowledge and vocabulary that has exceeded what the parents knew and learned.
The precise use of terms is a hallmark of an educated person.
“Thingamajig” and “whatchmacallit” just don’t work for us anymore.