Newest Life Science Additions to the Dictionary

Need help explaining CRISPR, epigenome, or rock snot? The Merriam-Webster dictionary has you covered.

Feb 8, 2017
Kerry Grens

PIXABAY, PDPICSAmong the hundreds of words added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary this year, more than a dozen are related to genetics, life sciences, and microbiology. Some of the highlights include the terms microRNA, epigenomics, didymo, and gene editing. 

The CRISPR entry notes both its original function, as an immune defense in bacteria and archaea, and its recent adoption as a gene editing tool. The latter part of the definition raised eyebrows for giving a nod to CRISPR pioneers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, though the patent trial over who invented the technique, involving them, Feng Zhang, and others, is still pending. “We don’t think the good folks at Merriam-Webster have an inside line to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board,” STAT News noted, “but we will note that Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier get a nod in the CRISPR definition—yet there’s no mention of MIT’s Feng Zhang. Burn.”

Microbiome also made its dictionary debut this year, despite its first known use—according to Merriam-Webster—in 1952. Even older, pareidolia, which also appears in the dictionary for the first time this year, has been around since Andrew Johnson’s administration. The term means “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.”

“Science, as always, brings us many new additions including CRISPR, pareidolia, microbiome, and prosopagnosia, which is an inability to recognize faces,” Merriam-Webster said in a statement emailed to The Scientist. “On the opposite end of the scientific spectrum is the word woo-woo, defined as ‘dubiously or outlandishly mystical, supernatural, or unscientific.’”