Monday, 29 November 2010

Feeling the strain

I'm currently reading for review the very entertaining book Boffinology (I don't know what US readers would make of this title - I don't think 'boffin' is a word in the States, though to be fair, it's hardly in common usage in the UK). The book consists of a series of articles on quirky aspects of the history of science.

I was particularly taken by the piece on clinical stress. Apparently, when first discovered in the 1930s, the scientist in question (you can read the book if you want to know who), did not have English as a first language, and when he published a letter on his discovery in Nature, he used 'stress' where he probably meant 'strain.' (This despite pleadings from a Nature editor to change the term.)

The point here is that in engineering 'stress' is the cause and 'strain' is the outcome, but in the medical term, 'stress' was the outcome.

The article goes on to describe the confusion this caused when the terminology was translated into other languages. Should they use his term, or the 'right' term? Apparently many chickened out, so the French have, for instance, with 'le stress' and several languages that don't use our alphabet, do use it for this word.

Although he probably shouldn't have used stress, I do find the apparent confusion a bit exaggerated, though. If 'strain' had been used instead of 'stress', surely there would have been confusion with a physical strain to a muscle etc? And anyway, in general usage at least, we tend to employ stress in a way that understands it to be the cause. We don't say 'I've got stress,' we say 'I'm stressed' or 'I'm under stress.' Now admittedly that isn't the clinical usage, and perhaps there they do say 'he's got bad stress' - but if that's the case, they should have taken the same sensible route that general usage has.


I don't know if the author/publisher knows, but I notice on searching for Boffinology on Amazon that you can download an MP3 of that name. Song of the book?

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