November 22, 2018

Merriam-Webster promoting a search tool that lets you look up the words that made their first known appearance in print any year dating all the way back to 1500

How old were you when CRISPR first showed up in print? And what were your grandparents doing when the word DNA made its first appearance?

Now you can find out. Merriam-Webster has been promoting a search tool that lets you look up the words that made their first known appearance in print in the year you were born, or any other year dating all the way back to 1500. (Incidentally, the word illness showed up that year.)

We at STAT decided to scour Merriam-Webster’s trove for some of the most important words that have shaped science in the past century. Taken as a whole, the list is a revealing lens through which to understand the history of science and biotech.

Here are the words that stood out to us, going back more than a century:


Sorry — initial coin offerings are a biotech thing now. ICOs look an awful lot like IPOs, except people buy “tokens” of a cryptocurrency held on a blockchain rather than stocks. (The SEC, naturally, has something to say about that.) In February, one announced it would seek $19 million from such an offering to develop an incubator for babies born via C-section.


Blockchain: The technology that underlies transactions of cryptocurrencies and has since been adopted by biotech entrepreneurs hoping it can help people understand their genomes and uncover treatments for diseases.


Electronic cigarette: Although e-cigarettes first showed up in print this year, another 13 years passed before the FDA issued sweeping regulations for the increasingly popular devices.


Pharma: We’re scratching our heads — why did this abbreviation for pharmaceutical companies show up in print so late?


AIDS: That year, scientists found themselves mystified by a terrifying disease that was beginning to spread among gay men, heroin users, and hemophilia patients. The next year, the HIV virus was identified as the culprit.


The world’s first baby conceived after in vitro fertilization was only born in 1978 — but this word’s relatively early arrival might be explained by the years of failures that preceded her birth. One Australian team, for example, published its attempt in 1973 in the Lancet. These days, the procedure is so common that egg freezing — with an eye toward future IVF procedures — is sometimes offered to women in their 20s.


Data mining: The biotech industry hadn’t even been born yet, but someone already figured out a way to spin failed clinical trials.


Artificial intelligence: More than 60 years after it made its first print appearance, the concept has taken hold in medicine. Researchers and clinicians are hoping to use artificial intelligence to help diagnose disease, guide treatment decisions, and forecast epidemics.


Epigenetics: A British geneticist coined the term, to define “the causal interactions between genes and their products, which bring the phenotype into being.” Today, there’s booming research interest into the on and off switches in our DNA.


Deoxyribonucleic acid: It would take another 15 years before James Watson and Francis Crick identified DNA’s molecular structure and set into motion the genetics era. Incidentally, an archaic spelling of our genetic code, desoxyribonucleic acid, made its first appearance in print in 1931. But the abbreviation DNA didn’t make it into print until 1944.


Postdoctoral: At a time when the modern university was taking shape, there emerged a new breed of researchers, fresh out of their Ph.D.s and looking for a job. In the past century, they’ve become the engines powering academic labs. They’re doing some cool work.


Antiflu: This word arrived the same year that a flu pandemic killed millions of people around the globe.


Gene: The term was first used in print at a time of growing interest in Gregor Mendel’s experiments on pea plants conducted in the 1860s. But it would take decades more for the study of genetics to take off in a real way.

Let us know in the comments if we left out the birthdays of any of your favorite words in science.