Science has been increasingly divided into specialist areas over the past century, to the point that translational journals now exist in many fields to help keep the scientific communities somewhat integrated. So, it may come as no surprise that the reaction to divides has also developed in the language — a proliferation of “-omics” has hit the sciences, as a recent Wall Street Journal story detailed.
The term “genome” first emerged in 1920, coined by German botanist Hans Winkler to mirror the chromosome. However, the term “genomics” didn’t emerge until 1986, when the Human Genome Project launched. Since then, more than 400 -omics have emerged — proteomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics, just to name a few. There’s even a journal called Omics, published by Mary Ann Liebert. And from this journal, we get a clue about why the suffix -omics is being wielded — to help integrate fields that are likely to splinter.
But some have complained at the rapid advance of -omics and its sometimes laughable uses, calling it a language parasite. Jonathan Eisen has started a feature on his Tree of Life blog called called, “Bad Omics Word of the Day.” Some of his examples include “vaccinomics,” “infectomics,” and “miRNAomics.” It’s worth noting that the URL for Eisen’s blog is http://phylogenomics.blogspot.com/ — I suppose “genomics” and its progeny are given a free pass owing to the legacy.
Of course, Eisen doesn’t have to wait for a new bad application of -omics to appear, thanks to Mick Watson at ARK Genomics. Watson has created a Badomics Generator, which presents the user with a fine example of the worst of the form.
Harvard biomedical communications expert Alexa McCray is quoted in the Wall Street Journal article as sympathetic with the -omics trend:
In new scientific fields, we need new terminology because we are inventing new things. Language does have to evolve.
Science has evolved before, initially with a proliferation of -ists emerging from its early years, when the -logy suffix started to define the boundaries of emerging fields (some of them since proven bogus, like phrenology and astrology). I’m sure if you were to try, you could develop an allergic reaction to biologist, internist, orthopaedist, physicist, microbiologist, ethicist, physiologist, geneticist, linguist, cardiologist, pathologist, or even allergist.
Language evolves, and it’s often entertaining while it does. At least we’re debating -omics, and not -izzles. It would pain me to have to go to visit my allergizzle.