In 1935, Dupont promised they’d bring us better living through chemistry. Today, the phrase is used ironically for movie and album titles, and most especially to describe recreational drug use. Acknowledging that chemistry has improved our lives is bromidic. Less well known is that the chemical lexicon, demonstrably miscible with our day-to-day vocabulary, has improved our language as well.
Who wouldn’t prefer to read of the combustion when lovers meet, how magnetic is her hold on him, how malleable he is in her hands, and not merely that he is drawn to her? How much better to acknowledge that their love evaporated over time, and that only dross remained?
I am not a chemist. I am a writer. I don’t even move in the same orbits as chemists. I have, however, taken chemistry courses where my greatest achievement was making the top two-thirds of the class possible. But I did come to appreciate C.P. Snow’s observation in The Two Cultures, that solving the world’s problems would be much easier if scientists and non-scientists shared a common language.
Like most writers, I am a natural word-lover, and like many writers, an inveterate procrastinator. So for my avoidant amusement, and to see to what degree we have that common language, I started compiling a list of ordinary words derived from chemistry. With many projects to ignore, over time it got longer and longer, and could probably be longer still.
I now offer it to you, dear reader, in the hope that you find it of interest, that it may prove a catalyst for some slight procrastination, and that you will kindly pass along any additions you come up with to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Absorption: a soaking up or taking in of ideas or qualities of one’s environment; the state of any child with a favorite book or video game, complete absorption occurring most commonly when you ask a teen to do something while the game is in progress. In chemistry, the process by which atoms, molecules, or ions enter gas, liquid or solid material, and energy is captured and transformed.
Adsorption: unlike the full assimilation of absorption, what is taken up is only deposited on the surface of the other, as happens when studying only for a test or is revealed when politicians attempt to hold forth on anything of substance.
Acidulous: bitter or cutting remarks. Think Evelyn Waugh, who on hearing Randolph Churchill’s tumor was benign, remarked: “there’s a testament to modern medicine — they find the only part of Randolph that’s not malignant and then remove it.” From the sour, bitter, burning proton-donor compounds known as acids.
Alchemy: a seemingly magical process of transformation. In the Middle Ages the goal was to change base metals into gold, in today’s legal system it is frequently to turn lost limbs and mangled bodies into cash, and in our government, cash into law. From the medieval forerunner of chemistry that claimed to be able to transform matter.
Alembic: something that refines, purifies or transforms. “Kendall Jenner became progressive only in the alembic of fan blowback after her infamous Pepsi commercial.” From the apparatus formerly used for distilling.
Amorphous: A thing or idea lacking a definite shape or pattern, kind or character, like the innumerable deeply felt and entirely unprovable conspiracy theories that are, sadly, not limited to the tinfoil hat crowd. An organization without a leader or focus. From a substance lacking crystalline structure.
Antiseptic: Scrupulously clean; bland, devoid of color or soul. Ben Affleck, Tim Allen, “Family-friendly” movies and network tv. From the disinfecting compounds that have saved the world much misery and now, thanks to antimicrobial promiscuity, have generated untreatable infections.
Arsenious: related to or containing arsenic, the element that because of its poisonous qualities became known as “inheritance powder” after centuries of use by impatient heirs. “Over time the relationship turned arsenious.”
Aqueous: watery, of or relating to water, like “The Perfect Storm,” or Darryl Hannah in Splash, or your eyes after “Old Yeller.” Somehow in slang usage, boorish or unhelpful behavior. A solvent or medium that contains water; rocks or sediment deposited by water.
Atomize: converting into fine particles or droplets has become breaking into small units — as crime can anatomize society, or treating physicians can anatomize people until they’re nothing but organs or their constituent parts.
Bromide: a platitude overused and implying insincerity (“Have a great day;” “Follow your dream,” “When life gives you lemons…” etc.); a boring statement, a verbal sedative — derived from bromides which were once used as tranquilizers such as Bromo-Seltzer.
Bromidic: commonplace, trite, and boring. “I’m as trite and gay as a daisy in May/ a cliché’ coming true. I’m bromidic and bright as a moon/ happy night pouring light on the dew…” (South Pacific: “A Wonderful Guy”) See bromide. And don’t miss Danny Kaye or Astaire and Kelly singing George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Babbitt and the Bromide.”
Caloric: of or relating to the energy content of food, casually meaning fattening as though it were the food and not the overeater responsible for the weight gain. Of course, caloric content doesn’t count if the food is eaten standing up or in multiple slivers.
From “calorie” defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C (now usually defined as 4.1868 joules) 1000 of which equals the large calorie used as the food measure. “Caloric” originally was the non-existent fluid that moved from hotter to colder bodies dreamt up by Lavoisier, father of chemistry, when rejecting the theory of the non-existent phlogiston as an explanation for combustion.
Carbohydrates: loosely “carbs” — the starchy, sugary foods comprising everything you like to eat and which are blamed for Americans’ obesity. From the carbon-hydrogen-oxygen molecule that is used as a synonym of “saccharide.”
Catalyst: a stimulus or impetus for change, someone or something that precipitates an event — derived from a substance that causes or accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being affected. (E.g.: A mouse in the girls’ locker room; a cockroach on the wall at Le Bernardin; or the father who leaves 19 horses to his three sons — 1/2 to the eldest, ¼ to the middle, 1/5 to the youngest. Man rides up, adds his horse to the herd, then divides; 10 to the eldest; 5 to the middle; 4 to the youngest. Then rides off. His horse is named “catalyst.”)
Caustic: bitingly sarcastic, severely critical. Dorothy Parker reviewing a Katheryn Hepburn performance: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” From substances that can burn or corrode organic tissue.
Charge: the pleasure or feeling of excitement one gets from another or a thing, as when you accidentally touched hands in a high school chemistry lab, or as Ezio Pinza tells us can happen across the room on an enchanted evening. Or, for some while stamp collecting or raising fish. The property of matter carried by protons and electrons that causes it to experience a force when in an electromagnetic field.
Chemistry: the physical attraction felt by people for each other — for those dating, most notable for its absence. From the idea that our emotions are ruled by chemicals, as though we were pheromone-secreting insects or plants, outside our conscious control.
Combustion: violent excitement or agitation, as occurs in people when they believe they are being disserved by higher-ups of all sorts, often preceding revolution. From the chemical change via rapid oxidation that produces heat and light.
Compound: a blend or combination of things. To make something bad, worse, of which there are too many political, legal, and medical examples to list. From a pure chemical substance made up of two or more elements.
Cryogenic: for those seeking a cure for mortality and not content with the promise of a harp and a cloud, the optimistic practice of deep-freezing on decease in hope of future revival, as was done to Ted Williams when a supposed family pact written on a napkin was allowed to override his will. From the study of elements and reactions at low temperatures.
Dehydrate: to lose water from the body especially the water needed to function. Or to deprive a substance or chemical compound of water, which is a great way to preserve seasonal foods for later use or, as the Egyptians discovered, to prepare people for the afterlife.
Density: solidity, denseness (including thick-headedness), the measure of trees in a forest, weeds in a lawn, people in a city, or compactness — such as amount of information stored in a medium. From the measure of mass per unit volume.
Distill: to extract the essential of something — meaning or other. As complex issues are oversimplified in mass media, and literature and cinema are reduced to a “high concept” single sentence to make them saleable. From the process of purifying through evaporation and condensation
Dross: waste matter; the toxic remains of a relationship that’s run its course; the pile of worthless information one has to sift each day to glean something of value. From the leftover scum or impurities when smelting metals
Ductile: pliable or flexible; or, less kindly, docile, gullible, submissive — voters when times are bad. From deformable, non-brittle substances.
Effervescence: enthusiasm and vivacity in a person; Tina Turner doing “Proud Mary,” Aretha Franklin singing anything. In a substance, the formation of gas bubbles in a liquid resulting from a reaction.
Element: a part or aspect of something, frequently of something abstract, especially an essential part, as wind is an essential element of sailing, snow of skiing, and money of politics. From the 100-plus primary constituents of matter, the substances that cannot by chemical means be broken down into simpler substances.
Energy: the power from chemical resources needed to cause a physical change has been broadened to mean vitality, vigor, and liveliness — the strength to get through life and accomplish much and which is sapped daily by the news.
Equilibrium: the state that results when the forward reaction proceeds at the same rate as the reverse reaction so there’s no further change has come to mean a general state of stability, physical and mental balance, composure, a calm state of mind, the Buddha, and in economics, when supply equals demand.
Evaporate: the liquid to gas transformation has evolved into disappearance, as with so many investments, love, and civil discourse in politics.
Fission: the action of breaking something into parts, dividing or rupturing, as in the fission of our nation into acrimonious parties. From the splitting of a heavy nucleus into lighter nuclei.
Fissile: easily split or divided along natural planes, as in the weak areas of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, or the irrepressibly fissile forms of religious practice that over decades produce dozens of new religions, and each year, thousands of new churches; from the material that that can sustain a chain reaction.
Fluid: a substance without fixed shape, comprised of molecules that move past each other, can today refer to appealing prose, an artist’s line, the movements of an athlete, or nonspecific gender identity, like Pat on SNL.
Fulminate: to detonate or explode with a loud noise or the act of raging, ranting or railing against someone or something, like Yosemite Sam, the Incredible Hulk, or the innumerable suffering movie heroes in the final payback scene. From the explosive compounds with fulminate ion.
Fusion: the merging of two or more things to form a single entity; a synthesis, union, or melding, commonly used to describe the blending of music and cuisines that often shouldn’t be — like, say, Italian and Japanese. The combining of lighter nuclei to form a heavier nucleus.
Immiscible: whatever cannot be mixed to create homogeneity, like incompatible blood types, piloting and drinking, sex and abstention, and not just unblendable liquids.
Inert: immoveable, still, lacking energy to move, like a teenager the morning after. From inactive or unreactive matter.
Kinetic: active, lively, dynamic; art that depends on movement for its effect such as a Calder mobile, or Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, or Gal Gadot doing anything. The intelligence (also kinesthetic) that enables one to control bodily movements. From the energy possessed by a body owing to its motion.
Liquefy: The conversion of solid or gas into liquid has morphed into the ability to convert an asset into cash or to experience a variety of metaphorical meltings including the internal one when passionately kissed by the one desired.
Magnetic: the extraordinary ability to attract, as possessed by a charismatic personality, and a few people who think they do but really just have very sticky skin. In chemical compounds a matter of paired and unpaired electrons.
Malleable: pliable or easily influenced, the hoi polloi, the electorate; from the quality of a material to be bent or reshaped without breaking. See ductile.
Matrix: an environment conducive to the development of a thing or a concept, and of course the simulated, machine-created reality hypothesized in the classic cyberpunk movie. Also a rectangular array of mathematical elements. From a chemical substance in which something else develops.
Matter: Molecules and atoms and their constituent particles, anything with mass that takes up space; in common parlance not only the physical but the abstract, usually a topic, a situation, or something of significance, like the many little things one didn’t know mattered until getting into a relationship.
Menstruum: a solvent, especially one used to extract medicinal compounds from plants. Herbalists use water, alcohol, vinegar, oils, or honey. From the belief of Medieval alchemists that a woman’s menses was the go-to choice.
O. Henry wrote of one of his characters: “But Ikey was timid, and his hopes remained insoluble in the menstruum of his backwardness and fears.”
Metathesis: the transposition of letters or sounds within a word, or words within a sentence, often creating speech errors. The way “prescription” becomes “perscription.” Or “intracoastal” its opposite “intercoastal.” Or how it’s a dog-eat-dog world, became “a doggie dog world.” A chemical reaction involving the exchange of bonds between two reacting chemical species, resulting in the creation of products with similar or identical bonding affiliations. Conveniently its anagram is “it’s the same.”
Miscible: mixable, like rum and coke, wine and seltzer, and until recently, the pluribus that made the unum. For chemists, substances that fully dissolve to form something homogenous.
Neutral: impartial or disinterested; also, bland and featureless as in Ryan Seacrest, master of obsequiousness before celebrity. A chemical solution which is neither acid nor base, or a particle without electrical charge.
Nuclear: (or, as once presidentially pronounced, “nucular”), a small family unit, atomic power, our doomsday weapons. The field of chemistry that deals with radioactivity.
Nucleus: the core or hub of an organization, movement, or idea. The nucleus of just about every religion is that it possesses the only acceptable way to organize the world, and anyone who doesn’t subscribe is doomed. The central part of an atom containing protons and neutrons.
Orbit: the social circle in which one travels or the sphere of interest or influence one has, as in the preoccupying question of what besides money, golf, and women’s bodies is within the president’s orbit; also the path of an object revolving around a celestial body, like the regions of space around an atom’s nucleus where electrons are likely to be found — now also orbital.
Osmosis: the process by which one slowly assimilates ideas or knowledge, generally without conscious effort, as a plant or animal absorbs liquid passing from cell to cell, and hopeful students sleep with a text under the pillow. From the movement of solvent molecules through a semi-permeable membrane.
Polar: an extreme opposite, as in the gelid ends of the Earth’s axis, Einstein and Inhofe — the guy who brought a snowball into the Senate to refute the science of global warming, the Koch brothers and the four chaplains who gave their lives to save others on the Dorchester troopship; or where the unequal distribution of bonding electrons makes one end of a molecule slightly positive and the other slightly negative.
Precipitate: hasty, rash or poorly considered action, like too-young marriages, Congressional lawmaking, and any number of our wars; to bring about an undesired result. From the insoluble solid that emerges from a liquid solution
Reactive: responding to what has occurred — a strategy that waits until matters unfold before responding, as in our Congressional policy; from the tendency of a substance to undergo chemical reaction and release energy.
Salt: not just the product of the reaction of acid and base, or the universally valued seasoning and preservative for our food that the ancient Romans used as payment (and from which we get the word “salary”), but to plant items of value in something worthless, like ore in a played out mine to deceive a potential buyer.
Soluble: a problem that can be worked out, including the many social ills being ignored by our government, as well as a substance that can be dissolved.
Solvent: Able to pay one’s debts, as way too many Americans cannot, many of them because of medical bills; able to dissolve another substance. A thing that dissolves another; something that solves a problem. The Latin solver means to loosen, dissolve, or to pay.
Stochastic: chance, random, probabilistic, like the odds of single people over forty finding a mate in Manhattan; in math, creating models with random numbers. In chemistry, a variety of simulations of reactions based on random values.
Titrate: to continuously measure or adjust the balance of something, usually a drug dosage. What Maureen Dowd failed to do when she scarfed the pot candy bar and suffered a bad trip. From the process of measuring the volume of a known concentration of reagent required to complete a reaction.
Valence: the ability of one atom to combine with any other atom by either giving or receiving electrons has become a statement about how any two things interact, including a book with its readers. For this to happen with a novel, Robert Stone insisted, it must possess “a moral valence.”
Psychologists use the word to describe the intrinsic attractiveness or aversiveness of a thing or event. Linguists use it to quantify the potential bonds of a verb. None of this has anything to do with the ancient city on the Rhone River, which has, among other attractions, Turkish baths and a 16th century house with many carved heads and a plaque declaring that Napoleon slept there.
Vaporize: not just to turn into gas, but to destroy, extinguish, annihilate, make vanish, as we may fantasize doing to certain others. Also a variety of guns, mainly fictitious, and one merely incredible, the Australian weapon called the DX4 that fires over a million rounds per minute.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Learn more about Donald Friedman at donaldfriedman.com. Purchase The Writer’s Brush, You’re My Dawg, Dog, The Hand Before The Eye, and others on Amazon, IndieBound, Barnes and Noble, and other fine retailers.