You say tomato, I say Solanum lycopersicum

7 November 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in overseas science, speaking science

I came across this video (thanks, Jon)

I like this song for many reasons. Showing the human face of science in a fun way, the catchy tune, the slightly awkward rhymes...

But what struck me most was the pronunciation of the word "pipette". For those of you who aren't familiar, a pipette is a piece of equipment used in laboratories to move very small amounts (right the way down to millionths of a litre) of liquid from one container to another. For an illustration of how not to use them (what I call "bad pipettiquette"), see this Tumblr.

The word "pipette" is a diminutive form of the word "pipe". As such, Americans say "pie-pet". Which makes sense. But until I saw the video above, I had only ever heard it pronounced "pip-ette" in English, because I went to university in the UK and all my chemistry and biology lab instructors were British. Well, one was French, but that doesn't matter because the British pronunciation comes from imitating the French, who say "peep-ette". Which also makes sense (pipe in French sounds like "peep").

A pair of pipettes

Ceci n'est pas une pipette. Credit: Wikipedia user Ohnemichel.

This is one of several differences in pronunciation across the Atlantic. I'm not going to list them all here, but I will point out a few of my favourite examples from the world of science:

  • "Aluminium": In the UK we pronounce all the letters. Americans tend to drop the second i, saying "aluminum" instead. Some even spell it that way i. As far as I know, this is the only element name where this is done. However, I think we could have a lot of fun with things like sod-um or hel-um.
  • Mathematics: the British say "maths", Americans "math". I've discussed this here.
  • "Processes": some Americans rhyme this word with "analyses" (plural of analysis) and "crises", i.e. they say "process-ees".
  • The British retain many French spellings, such as "litre" and "centre", whereas Americans use "liter" and "center".
  • z or s in words like metabolis/ze. I think I prefer "metabolise", on the basis of consistency with "metabolism".
  • Don't even get me started on "niche": "neesh"(UK)  versus "nitchy" or "neeshay" or "nitch" (US, natch).

None of this matters very much, of course. I used to get quite annoyed by Americans "misusing" English, but I thankfully got over it and learned to appreciate the variety and make it fun in my mind to notice these differences.

In that spirit, here's the inimitable Eddie Izzard on the subject of American & British English:

For more discussion on British v American English, I recommend Lynne Murphy's excelent blog, Separated By A Common Language.

Over to you:

  • Can you offer any more examples of these kinds of US/UK differences in scientific words?
  • How do they say "pipette" in Canada, Australia, or anywhere else?
  • Does this happen in other languages as well? e.g. In French: do Africa, France, Belgium, Quebec and Switzerland all use the same scientific lexicon?
  • Are there variations in how different languages bring British or American English words into their own vocabularies?

13 Responses to “You say tomato, I say Solanum lycopersicum”

  1. Nick Reply | Permalink

    All Americans spell it "aluminum". It's not just dropping the letter in speech. There are four other "-um not -ium" elements: molybdenum, lanthanum, tantalum, and platinum. I used to think the latter was pronounced "platinium", but since it wasn't named after a French footballer it must have been wishful thinking.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I've definitely met some Americans (OK, they might have Slovak expat Americans) who spelled it with i and pronounced it without.

      Great gag about the footballer :)

  2. Herbie Reply | Permalink

    In Australia we say "pippette" ie with a short /i/ vowel ... I'm a speech pathologist and also total word nerd and am embarrassed to admit that I hadn't made the link to the word "pipe" --- yet it's so obvious now you point it out! To be fair I hadn't thought about the word since high school science.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      There's no embarrassment in not spotting these things!
      thanks for your contribution.

  3. Mary Reply | Permalink

    I was once in a really amusing discussion of the pronunciation of FASTA (bioinformatics file format). There is divergence in the UK, US, and Australia on that final "A" sound.

    But I have actually had more conceptual trouble with "bespoke" and "scheme". In my early career Brits were talking about bespoke database queries and I had no idea what that meant. But it turned out it was pretty good. Generally I think of these as "custom" and I still need to translate this in my head every time I hear it.

    Even just this evening though I was reading a science news piece where they talked about a sequencing "scheme". In the US (or at least where I come from), scheme has kind of a nefarious and shady connotation. I understand elsewhere it just means plan or project. But every time I hear it I think of gangsters or criminals.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I would imagine Australians to pronounce FASTA to rhyme with the (weird to my ears) way they say "pasta", i.e. "paaaah-sta"

      Thanks for sharing your examples of "bespoke" and "scheme" - I had not come across those yet.

  4. Ernesto Reply | Permalink

    Yesterday someone asked me if the spelling of "international" English was supposed to be American or British. My answer was that I learnt the American spelling and really do not know which one is the "international", but that if I want to send a paper to a conference in Europe the spelling should be British. I always have to look up the aluminum/aluminium pair to know which one is the "correct" option. Also when I'm proofreading I have to look at every realize/analyze/synthetize "mistake".

    Beyond the American/English issue there is the decimal comma/point topic, which I thought was an European/American difference... only until I sent an abstract to a conference in UK and I had to correct the commas. Then I realized it's more a continental/English speakers issue.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      It can be really tricky when to use British, American or "World" (which is mostly American) English.

      It's probably worth noting that "realise" is different from "analyse" and "synthesise", in that their respective nouns are "realisation" (which would be OK with a z), "analysis" and "synthesis" (which would not).

      Decimal commas are another common issue, indeed. I grew up using decimal commas and spaces betwen thousands, i.e. 1 000 000,99 whereas at uni in the UK it used to be 1,000,000.99 and now I even have colleagues who do 1'000'000.99

  5. Karen James Reply | Permalink

    As an American who postdoc'd in the UK, I can offer a couple more:
    - Petri dish (PET-tree vs. PEE-tree)
    - fertile (FUR-tile vs. FUR-dull)
    - genome (juh-GNOME vs. GEE-gnome) though the former is rare in both the UK and the US, it does crop up occasionally
    - herbarium (her-BARE-ee-um vs. ur-BARE-ee-um)
    - Pinus (PIE-nuss vs. PEE-nuss or PEE-noose) This is a difference not between the UK and US but between English and other languages. As it's a genus name, and therefore Latin, the latter is correct. Unfortunately the latter is also embarrassing for English speakers so we tend to go with the former.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for those!

      Petri gets pronounced both ways in the UK as far as I know. It's often a geographical/classist thing too.

      I guess "juh-GNOME" makes sense given where the stress falls (i.e. on the "gnome") in "genomics".

      As for Pinus, I'd probably say something like Pin-us, but that might be the French in me coming to the surface.

  6. Jenny Rohn Reply | Permalink

    As an American in Britain for many years, I still say PIPE-ette. But confusingly, I now also say beeta, caPILLiary, zed and a whole host of other stuff. Also, collective nouns have become magically plural! ("My lab ARE having lunch.") It is, of course, highly contagious.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment!

      I think the debate on group nouns being singular/plural will go on forever...

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