Sense, Missense, and Nonsense: A Word Nerd’s Freewheeling Take On The Vocabulary of Genetics

I proudly admit to being a Word Nerd, a hound who sniffs a trail on a random dictionary page for the sheer pleasure of flushing out obscure words. Today’s finds were haček, hachure, and hackbut. So let me combine two of my passions – words and genetic counseling – and share a few irreverently serious thoughts on some selections from the genetics lexicon.

Genetic Counselor –This professional title is just plain wrong. We should more properly be called genetics counselors, i.e., those who counsel about genetics.  The s-less form gives the impression that being a counselor is the result of a hereditary predisposition towards counseling (“I’m sorry,” she said to the patient after an overly long counseling session, “Sometimes I can’t stop myself from counseling. It must be genetic.”). A health professional who counsels about diabetes is called a diabetes counselor, not a diabetic counselor. Unless of course you were describing a counselor who happens to have diabetes.  Hey NSGC – time for you to take the lead on this one and change the name of our profession, though I shudder to think of the impact on the fine print of those state licensure laws.

Chimaera vs. Chimera. I prefer the  “ae” spelling because “ae” words are uncommon in American English and its occurrence in the middle of the word makes it look like a hybrid word, just as a chimaera is a rare and unusual genetic hybrid. The word comes from the mythological fire-breathing female creature said to be the product of an incestuous union and is an anatomic pastiche of a lion, a goat, and a serpent. It is derived from the Greek khimaira, a year old she-goat. Its earliest use in English, in the 16th century, meant “wild fantasy.” The chimaera fish is a member of the Chimaeridae, a class of cartilaginous fishes. Given these connotations, the term is insensitive and evokes a sideshow spectacle. If I were someone who were chimaeric, I would lobby for a new designation for this phenomenon when it occurs in humans.

Meiosis/Mitosis. It is blatantly unfair and inconsiderate that two words that describe processes broadly similar in outline but critically different in detail and outcome should have easily confused names. When I learned about cellular division, I resorted to the mnemonic “Meiosis has an ‘e’, and ‘e’ is the first letter in egg; thus, eggs undergo meiosis, not mitosis.”  It also helps to know that meiosis comes from the Greek word for “lessening,” reflecting its characteristic reduction division (though during mitosis the amount of DNA doubles from 2N to 4N and then reduces to 2N…Oh, never mind). The great 19th century German biologist Walther Flemming coined mitosis after his observations of the dividing gill and fin cells of a salamander. Mitosis derives from the Greek word for “thread,” presumably referring to the dividing cell’s threadlike chromatin.  The Online Etymology Dictionary translates the Greek a bit differently as “warped threads.” Warped Threads would be a good name for a Seattle alt band that sings quirky songs about salamanders (“Newt Is A Real Salamander”), Greek letters (“I Was Just Your Beta-Test Boyfriend”), and 19th century German biologists (“Virchow’s Virtues”).

Oocyte. I admit I like this one strictly because it’s fun to say, and to play with different pronunciations – “ooo-cytes” “oh-oh-cytes” “oh-uh-cytes” or, perhaps if an egg cell develops abnormally, “uh-oh-cytes.” As an added bonus, the o-shape that the mouth makes when saying the word evokes the shape of an egg cell. I am not a fan of oogonia or oogonium (or their even more awkward cousins, spermatogonia and spermatogonium). Oogonia sounds like an ancient continent, as in  “During the Jurassic Period, tectonic forces broke up Gondwana into several smaller continents, including Oogonia, where only female dinosaurs thrived.” Oogonium could be a rare mineral as in “Oogonium mining resulted in contaminated ground water that was responsible for mutations in the oocytes of exposed field mice.”

Kindred, Kinship. While there is nothing wrong with pedigree – that old crane’s foot of a word – kindred and kinship are snazzier, a syllable shorter, and permit the Teutonic pleasure of the “k” sound. It also evokes a spirit of unity (the whole family is on this ship together and united by a special bond, as in kindred spirits). Besides, everybody thinks of dogs and horses when they hear pedigree, whereas kinship and kindred are usually only applied to humans. The related term sibship rolls off the tongue nicely too.

Products of Conception. This wins the Silver Medal for the coldest and most insensitive pregnancy-related term; the Gold goes to habitual aborter (both sound suspiciously like terms created by men for women). I recognize that it tries to communicate the idea that pregnancy includes a fetus as well as membranes and a placenta. But the term robs pregnancy of its emotional richness and sounds like a Marxist critique of a capitalist pregnancy factory where the female proletariat manufacture babies to generate profits for the owners.

Primitive Streak. I am fond of this one because it communicates the ancientness of this vertebrate biological structure. I am not the only one intrigued by this name. The Subdudes 1996 CD bears this title. It is also the name of a coolly outrageous clothing line developed by fashion designer Helen Storey and her sister Kate Storey, a developmental biologist. Their creations realize the early stages of embryonic development in fabric, and include such items as a dress featuring two sperm-shaped breast plates and a stunning white fake fur neurulation dress.

Genetic Drift. This term, attributed to the great geneticist Sewall Wright, clearly and non-technically evokes the word’s meaning without resorting to pedantic combinations of Greek words. You hear “genetic drift” and you immediately grasp what it refers to – random fluctuations in gene frequencies over time and populations, the evolutionary equivalent of Brownian motion. Genetic Drift was also the name of a wonderful series of genetics essays written by Larry Karp in the American Journal of Medical Genetics in the early 1980s and which were one of the inspirations for me to blog about genetics.


Filed under Robert Resta

11 responses to “Sense, Missense, and Nonsense: A Word Nerd’s Freewheeling Take On The Vocabulary of Genetics

  1. Elena Strait

    Another great one, Robert!
    And I’ll never again be annoyed when someone refers to me as a “genetics counselor”

  2. I have to second Elena. I was always annoyed when I saw “genetics counselor”, but I may need to embrace it now. Very entertaining (and educational) read! Thanks!

  3. Heidi Beaver

    My nomination for the Bronze prize for insensitive pregnancy related term: elderly primigravida. Sounds like an 80 year old is pregnant. Oddly, in my first job we had diagnoses of ama and apa until the boss turned forty – it then changed to “paternal age X” but we were still stuck with ama!
    In re “genetics counselor” I have always had issue with the counselor part, with the nondirectiveness and preconceived notions of counseling. I have always felt it was a misnomer and “educator” may be a more appropriate moniker.

  4. I love it, Bob. I’ve long held a similar opinion about the word “antique.” An antiques dealer sells old stuff, but an antique dealer IS old stuff. And an antique show would be a great science fiction plot, where Satan lures unsuspecting buyers into a showroom where they are condemned to wander the aisles, inspecting the merchandise of antique dealers for 100 years or more.

  5. In South Africa, the genetic services division of the Dept of Health developed a new career track in the 1970s-80s for genetic(s) nurses. See PIMD: 245034. (Now they have genetic counselors as well, but nurses were their first choice, back then.)
    But! in South Africa, a “nurse” was still in training, whereas a “sister” was a qualified nurse. (Not a nun but a nurse, with Rank.)
    Genetic(s) counselors are sooo much easier, semantically, than either genetic sisters or genetics sisters (which sound like identical sisters anyway). In Afrikaans: genetiese susters vs. genetika susters.
    Sarina (Lemkus) Kopinsky, MS, CGC


    My mother wrote me to say how much she liked this one, Bob!

    I agree that humans with distinct cell lines should not be called chimaera unless one of the aforementioned cell lines is derived from, say, a goat. And then there may be bigger questions to answer than, “gee, what should we call this?” (a human/goat? perhaps a sandusky? is that over the line?)

    Also, I second some of the above commentators on the elderly primagravida tag. You might have to be a woman to grasp the full offensiveness of that one. Which you, plainly, are not.

  7. How about “Bad Obstetric History” for someone who has a history of recurrent miscarriages? I was pretty shocked when I heard it being used the first time…

  8. Pingback: Guest Post: Genetic Counseling Is Like A Soap Opera, by Laila Rhee Morris | The DNA Exchange

  9. Pingback: Questioning the “genetic counselor” professional title | The DNA Exchange

  10. Pingback: Euphemisms, Chucklers, Pet Peeves, And Wincers: Thoughts On Our Professional Vocabulary | The DNA Exchange

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