B.R.S.M. All this happened, more or less.


Chemical Etymology 1: Introduction

Credit: xkcd (http://xkcd.com/1012/)


I still find myself encountering unfamiliar terms in the literature all the time. Sometimes in my favourite organic chemistry journals, but especially when I stray further away from ‘pure organic’ into biochemistry, pharmacology, physical organic chemistry and other areas I know much less about. Before (or after) resorting to looking up new words, I really enjoy taking a guess at what they mean based on the smattering of Latin and Ancient Greek I learned at school and picked up over the last few years as a scientist. Strangely, I also find that knowing where words come from really helps me remember them, and I’m much more likely to know what they mean when I see them again. I’m not a linguist, but it seems to me that actually just a few root words seem to crop up rather a lot, and I’ve found that being familiar with a handful can be pretty useful. The aim of this post, and probably a couple more over the next month is to try and teach people who have never considered the origins of chemical terms something new.

So, why do this now? Well, one reason is that I’m a bit busy, and posts with structures in tend to take a while to write, while I can waffle on about this topic very easily. However, the actual inspiration for this post came from SeeArrOh’s commentary on last month’s Baran paper entitled ‘Baran Begets Mess Of Meroterpenoids’. I’m going to assume that at least some of the people who read that post are unfamiliar with the term ‘meroterpenoid’. In fact, one of my co-workers who was reading that post in the office at lunch actually asked me what it meant. I can actually remember the first time I encountered it, during the first year of my PhD, when I was reading about some rather odd looking natural products with some unmemorable names, like this one:

I tried googling the term, without success.[1] Then I actually looked at the structure. I vaguely remembered what terpenes were from my undergraduate days, and the right hand side looked quite terpenoid to me. Mero- was obviously some kind of prefix, modifying that term. Where else had I heard that? How about in monomer and isomer?[2] Fortunately, I knew the etymology of both those words, so I could guess straight away. Mero means ‘part’, and so a meroterpene must be a compound that’s ‘part’ terpene! Easy (and satisfying)!

In fact, when you learn a few words you start to see links between the most unlikely things. For example, the following:

Credit: images largely from wikipedia.org

Any ideas? Maybe if I tell you what they are: on the left is an urn depicting pankration, which was essentially the ancient Greek version of mixed martial arts. In the middle is pancratistatin, a remarkably selective and potent anti-cancer agent isolated from the Hawaiian spider lilly (and a popular target for total synthesis in the 1980s and 90s), and on the right is a simple schematic of an HPLC running with a fixed, or ’isocratic’, solvent system.[3] Hopefully, you can see that the common  root in this case is kratos, a Greek word meaning ‘power’.

Pankration was a rather more dangerous sport than wrestling in that anything was allowed, except biting or the gouging of eyes. The prefix pan simply means ‘all’,[4] and here the combined term implies victory by all means (and such fights were often fought to the death).

Pancratistatin, which I think is a cool name for a natural product, is named for the plant that produces it, Pancratium litorale. Here, we’re swapping to Latin, as that’s what usually used for naming living things, and pancratium is just the Latinised version of pankration, again meaning ‘all powerful’. Litorale, apart from being the only word I can think of that’s an anagram of tortilla, simply means ‘from the shore’. So the spider lilly is apparently ‘all powerful from the shore’. I’m not really sure why. This works well for pancratistatin, though, where it combines with statis to give an ‘all powerful stopper’, presumably of cancer.[5]

Hopefully you can work out the last one yourselves – an isocratic solvent system is simply ‘of the same power’ throughout.

I was going to go on to discuss the shared origins of rheology and diarrhoea (hint: flow), but I think I’ll stop here, and if anyone reads this, I’ll consider writing another post in this series.


Et cetera

  1. Note that if you try this right now you’ll actually get a definition from wiktionary.
  2. Monomer is quite an easy word to break down. It’s just one repeating part of a larger whole. Isomer may be a little harder. As chemists, we see the iso- prefix a lot, but I think the example from which its meaning is most obviously guessed is ‘isoelectronic’. Isoelectronic compounds have the same electronic configuration, so here it must mean ‘the same’. Isomers are therefore different molecules made up of the same parts. Both meros and isos are Greek words, although Latin loanwords are common too.
  3. I wanted to pick democracy as well, but that’s quite hard to get a photo of.
  4. A more common example is the word pandemic. Here pan again means all, and the second half of the word come from the Greek demos, meaning people. So a pandemic is a disease that affects all people. Incidentally, demos and kratos go together to make the word democracy; a system where the people have the power. I could do this all day.
  5. I would reference this, but I can’t remember where I read it. I guess it must have been in a paper on the synthesis of the natural product, but I can’t seem to find it right now.


Comments (7) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Awesome post! No mention of “pancrase”, the Japanese wrestling/fighting league? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancrase)

  2. Litorale an anagram (isoliteration?) of tortilla? Not exactly.

  3. Nice post.

    I already covered the rheology/diarrhea situation a few weeks ago. http://www.rheothing.com/2012/05/what-crappy-project.html

  4. Jack Handy from SNL once suggested we learn the meaning of “mankind” by breaking it down into its root words. So he broke it down to “mank” and “ind”. Unfortunately those mean nothing so we can’t understand mankind.

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