Words Canadians have wrought

Now that Canada’s reached the venerable age of 144, it’s time to dispel the notion that our nation only represents the words “snow” and “hockey.” Truth be told, “snow” predates Confederation by at least the last ice age, and hockey is first mentioned in the Galway (Ireland) Statutes of 1527, nearly a decade before Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence. On the other hand, the quartet of “kerosene,” “cyberspace,” “ACTH” and “optics” (in the PR sense) were all (more or less) Canadian creations. Here are their stories.

In 1846, in a church hall in Charlottetown, PEI, Abraham Gesner, a physician, 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 also may have prevented the extinction of the whale.

At the dawn of the industrial age, whales were an important natural resource that humans had been exploiting for centuries. They were especially valued for their oil, which was used primarily as fuel for lamps. So, 30 years after Gesner discovered kerosene, whaling ships had nearly disappeared because kerosene was more economical than whale oil.

The word “cyberspace” was coined by Canadian author William Gibson and appeared in his first novel, Neuromancer, in 1984. The first citation was actually two years earlier in an article he 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. It was coined in 1948 by mathematician Norbert Wiener and comes from the Greek word kybernetes (“steersman”). Mr. Gibson used “cyberspace” to refer to the virtual reality landscape within networked computers as it’s experienced by humans; it’s since come to mean the imagined locale where electronic information goes. So if you’re looking for someone to blame for “cyberterrorism” or “cyberstalking,” Mr. 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, who was born in Belleville, Ont. Earlier in his career, he had assisted Frederick Banting in the isolation of insulin.

While the word “optics” – the branch of physics dealing with light – was invented centuries before the birth of Canada, we own one of the first citations of its modern sense in terms of the public perception of things. To wit, on April 21, 1983, The Globe and Mail featured the headline Optics Is Name Of Game over a column by Orland French: “As they say in Larry Grossman’s health ministry, it’s all a matter of optics. This has nothing to do with the eyes, but it has everything to do with the way the public sees things.” I’m sure this sense of “optics” is Canadian because it was borrowed from the French. The word optique refers not only to the science of optics but also to visual appearance in general.

So, on Canada Day, raise a glass of Canadian Club, Molson Canadian or Canada Dry – not only to our land, but also to our inventive wordsmiths.


Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Jul. 01, 2011 2:00AM EDT