In silico

57916_2‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ is a saying that languages have always ignored. Judging by the number of English words that have been adopted by other languages over the last century or so, its status as one of the top ‘lenders’ must be unchallenged. But a borrower?  Yes, a number of new ‘English’ words are borrowed from other languages, too – Japanese, for example, has given us more than just emoji, kakuro and sashimi – most recently manga and mecha. We even borrow and then refashion words. The Italians have given us many words to do with food (which we mangle grammatically as well as in the pronunciation – think of ‘a panini’) and, enjoying so much good weather, they may like to dine al fresco. We borrowed that expression a long time ago – it sounds so much more exotic than ‘outside’. But even those of us who can’t even make it to the park at lunchtime can console ourselves by giving the expression a humorous twist and eating al desko.

It might seem surprising, though, to import new words from a dead language. And yet there are a number of words queuing up to get into the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary that look very much like Latin. Latin hasn’t been spoken as a vernacular for more than a millennium, so why would we want to import new words from it into English? Well, Latin is still around us, e.g. in specialist fields, viz. medicine, science, and so on, ergo if we need a new expression to fit in with terms we already use, yes, we make up some Latin.

We all know from science about in vivo and in vitro but nowadays experiments can be conducted without living creatures or even cultures in Petri dishes. They can be done virtually, using computer simulations, or in silico. When I was at school, ‘dissection’ meant cutting up a smelly fish in a biology lab – now science is so much more sophisticated:

Single-cell sequencing data enables in silico dissection of the drosophila embryo.

Scientists are turning to ‘in silico biology’, building computer models of the intricate processes that take place inside cells, organs, and even people.

Understanding how humans function is not just a matter for biology, but also for economists. In evolution, we are familiar with the progression from Homo habilis through Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, but when commentators wanted to define the type of person who would rationally choose the solution which provides the greatest benefit, they called him Homo economicus.  Although the term has been around for about a century, apparently Homo economicus has turned out to be a mythical creature, because modern humans – thankfully – do not typically behave this way. But modern human beings are not totally blameless creatures. In fact we are having such an effect on the planet that a new geological term has been suggested to describe our times, the Anthropocene period. The epoch we are currently in is called the Holocene, which followed the Pleistocene, but it has been suggested that we need a term to reflect the fact that the geology of the world is now more affected by the activities of humans than anything else. So to fit the pattern already established a new word has been made from the Greek anthropos, ‘human being’ and kainos, ‘new’.

In the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary we have an example at language:

Why study Latin? It’s a dead language.

But the classical languages haven’t met their nemesis yet!


Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. NB she taught languages for ten years before joining OUP and working on learner’s dictionaries e.g. the Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, Das Groβe Oxford Wörterbuch, and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, q.v. for an explanation of these abbreviations!

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