Geek Trivia

Before The Word Scientist Was Coined, Scientists Were Called What?

Natural Philosophers
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Image of William Whewell, from The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell (1881).
Public Domain/Wikimedia

Answer: Natural Philosophers

The use of the word “scientist” to describe a researcher exploring some aspect of the world using the scientific method is a surprisingly recent addition to the English language. The term was coined in 1833 by the English philosopher and science historian William Whewell—seen in the portrait here.

Whewell’s initial coining of the term was somewhat satirical in nature, but he later championed the term in earnest. Prior to the introduction of the term, what we now call scientists were referred to as “natural philosophers.” Whewell accurately noted that this term was limiting and didn’t serve the research community well as the field of science was quickly becoming very specialized and there was very little about it that was philosophical in nature any more. By the 19th century, scientific research was objective and empirical in nature.

The introduction of the term scientist coincided with terms highlighting the very diversity Whewell was talking about, including terms like physicist, chemist, botanist, and other terms for specialized fields of scientific study.