April 13, 2013 - Coining of the Word “Microscope”

– 1625
On this date in 1625, the word “microscope” was first suggested for a new invention (the compound microscope), which of course is an instrument that helps people see very, very small things. The word suggestion appeared in a letter written by Johannes Faber of Bamberg, Germany, to Federigo Cesi, Duke of Aquasparata in Italy.

Does a question occur to you as you read the above paragraph?

Do you wonder if this German fellow, writing to an Italian associate, actually suggested an ENGLISH word, microscope? Wouldn't he, perhaps, use the German word (mikroskop) or the Italian word (microscopio)?

Two thoughts here:
  1. When we report a new invention, a new idea, a new country name, even a new scientific term, we are actually reporting the English version or translation of that new thing. Presumably an article in Finnish about the new term would use “mikroskooppi”; in Vietnamese, “kinh hien vi”; and in Swahili “darubini.”
  1. Perhaps the German scientist and the Italian scientist had a common language in French. For many decades, French was considered the language that educated people in Europe and North America had to know—the language of arts, literature, diplomacy, and even science. When there is one common language that people in many different nations and of many different language traditions use to communicate, that language is called the lingua franca. (Even the term lingua franca is French!) Nowadays, in many places and fields, the lingua franca is English, but this letter was written a loooooong time ago. So it may well have been written in French.
And the French word for “microscope” is “microscope”! 
(The French spelling is the same as the English spelling, but the pronunciation is different.)

In honor of this historical anniversary, dust off your microscope and use it to inspect a human hair, water from a pond or stream, a blade of grass, or whatever else you can think of. If you don't own a microscope, perhaps you would like to check out this “virtual microscope” or this “virtual electron microscope.”

Also on this date:

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