How Scientific American Magazine Helps Shape the English Language

It is fascinating to consider that there was a time when such commonly used words as “pre-heat,” “download,” and “phone,” did not exist.  More surprising, perhaps, is that the first recorded use of these words in print, and 205 others in the English language, was in Scientific American magazine.

That’s according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which claims to be “The definitive record of the English language, featuring 600,000 words, 3 million quotations, and over 1000 years of English.”  Scientific American is widely recognized for its contributions to science and scientific publication, but less well appreciate are the contributions of this magazine to the English language.  This honor stems from the unique scope, longevity (publishing continuously since 1845), and the diverse audience of this publication.  Sentences published in Scientific American are among the most frequently quoted among the millions that OED uses to document how words in the English language are used.

As one would expect, the King James version of the Holy Bible is among the top 100 most quoted sources in the OED for word usage in the English language.  The Bible ranks 61st, with 4,521 quotations from the Bible cited in the OED.  But Scientific American outranks the Holy Book, as the 35th most frequent source for English usage, with 5,913 quotations cited.  The prolific and masterful William Shakespeare ranks number 2 behind the Times (of London), with other notable literary sources ranking well below Scientific AmericanTime (107th), Life (134th), Mark Twain (141th), Arthur Conan Doyle (591th), Edgar Allan Poe (877th), and U.S. News and World Report (900th).

Why would a magazine, such as Scientific American, top these other stellar literary sources as examples of English word usage?

See the article in Scientific American.


Some examples of words cited from Scientific American in the OED include:

Air brake, n. A brake operated by the pressure of compressed air.  Sci. Amer. 5 Sept. 414/3, 1857.

Aircraft, n.  Any of various vehicles capable of flight.  Sci. Amer. 13 Oct. 27/1, 1849.

Assembly line, n.  A group of machines and workers concerned with the progressive assembly of some product.  Sci. Amer. July 41/1 1926.

Telephone call, n.  An instance of contacting someone by telephone.  Sci. Amer. Suppl. 15 June 2040/1, 1878.  “The present writer many months ago designed a telephone-call based upon this principle…”

Fusion bomb, n.  A bomb in which the energy released is derived from an uncontrolled process of nuclear fusion.”  Sci. Amer. Mar 13/2, 1950.  “The designer of a fusion bomb clearly would start with a fission bomb of uranium or plutonium…”

Also, air cushion, animate, cartoon, clone, convertible, home computer, hot-air ballooning, meltdown, mileage, radiator, radio, service station, and more.


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