The word scientist comes from the Latin scientia, but when did its usage become more prevalent than the term natural philosopher?

  • I'm having trouble figuring out whether you're treating the two as synonyms. They're not, but a question about the relative growth of two different professions would be off-topic on english.se. Are you studying historic media interest in the two fields?
    – Ben Voigt
    Mar 9, 2011 at 1:02
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    Think about it this way: English speakers in the UK and US know of Sir Isaac Newton as one of the greatest scientists of all time, but he would not likely understand the term nor apply it to himself. I guess I'm asking about the words themselves, as it has been more than a century since people used the term natural philosopher in anything other than historical contexts, especially the mainstream. Perhaps it would be off-topic for english.se but it would be a great question to learn about the relative growth of the two professions and the birth of science as a career path even. Mar 9, 2011 at 18:08
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    I suspect the one question would answer the other. The ability of science to create phenomena that are not naturally occurring (for example, lasing) would influence the abandonment of terms such as natural philosopher and naturalist in favor of a term that isn't restricted to the study of natural occurrences.
    – Ben Voigt
    Mar 9, 2011 at 19:28
  • @Ben: Do you think there was a general feeling in academia in the late 1800s that science was harnessing nature 'unnaturally' (cf. Shelley's Frankenstein 1818), enough to change terminology? Mar 12, 2011 at 1:07
  • I can't offer an expert opinion on that, but it is a very reasonable conjecture.
    – Ben Voigt
    Mar 12, 2011 at 3:00

5 Answers 5


From the data reported from the Corpus of Historical American, scientist started to be used more frequently than natural philosopher between 1860 and 1869.


The CoHA finds 538 phrases containing scientist dated 1960-1969, and 589 phrases dated 2000-2009.

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    +1; Very nice to have it on a log scale, but it seems a little odd to present the n.p. data as bars instead of as a line?
    – PLL
    Mar 8, 2011 at 19:54
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    I also added a logarithmic trend line.
    – apaderno
    Mar 8, 2011 at 20:09

According to this blog post (and this), William Whewell proposed the term in 1835.

Opposition continued into the late 1800s and early 1900s, but according to this Google Labs ngram, the crossing point appears to be a little after 1870:


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    Asked and answered. Very nice.
    – Dusty
    Mar 8, 2011 at 19:56
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    Wikipedia also mentions that scientist took longer to be accepted in the UK than the US. This I presume explains the difference between your graph (both combined) and @kiamlaluno’s (US only). Unfortunately WP’s reference for the fact, this article, doesn’t seem to be freely available anywhere I can find…
    – PLL
    Mar 8, 2011 at 20:54
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    Here's the full one. Mar 9, 2011 at 3:03
  • @Muntoo: It can also go back to 1500, you know. Mar 9, 2011 at 17:44
  • @Cerberus Sorry, I meant the "almost" full one. ;) Also, at this time, the 1500s haven't happened yet. Mar 9, 2011 at 22:23

I present a different picture:

enter image description here

  • What's up with those random bumps for science? (1710-1720; 1730-1740) Mar 9, 2011 at 2:04
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    @Muntoo: I suspect that the total number of words from books scanned before ca. 1790 is just too low to render significant results. So they are probably random, as you say. Mar 9, 2011 at 2:33
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    "books scanned before 1790"? You need to turn off your time machine and stop exporting technology into the middle ages.
    – Ben Voigt
    Mar 9, 2011 at 5:09
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    @Ben: Hey they had large boxes with monkeys in them that would digitize the books into punched cards. Mar 9, 2011 at 12:55
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    I was hoping those bumps were on 1885, 1955, 1985 and 2015 :( Apr 14, 2011 at 4:41

scientist vs. natural philosopher ngram macro

it probably happened in 1870 - just refined the Book Ngram Viewer

here's a more granular view - "natural philosopher" rallied but ultimately gave way to "scientist" before June of 1874

scientist vs. natural philosopher ngram micro/granular

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    +1 For the detailed view. P.S. Are you aware of the fact that you can copy a link to the graph-that-is-an-image directly from the page on Ngrams? No need for screenshotting. Apr 24, 2011 at 0:15
  • @Cerberus I was looking for that facility - how would you do that? Sorry, I'm a n00b in english.stackexchange.com ;) Apr 24, 2011 at 0:24
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    You right-click on the graph on your Ngram page, click "copy image location/link/url". Then you simply upload the picture as a link here in your answer: click "add image", click "add image from URL" (not sure what the buttons are called exactly, but something like that), and paste the link you copied from Ngrams. Apr 24, 2011 at 0:54
  • @Cerberus thanks for that! Will try that next time! :) Apr 24, 2011 at 1:43

Unfortunately the answers using the Google Ngram data are basing their conclusions on a fallacy. "Scientist" is a 1gram and "natural philosopher" is a 2gram. There are many more 2grams than 1grams, hence the frequencies are not comparable.

Edit: And now I'm not so sure.

Let me introduce two new terms "type" and "token".

By "type" I mean a unique ngram. So, in the text 'Smith, where Jones had had "had", had had "had had". "Had had" had had the examiner's approval.' there are these 7 different 1grams (excluding punctuation and ignoring case): smith, where, jones, had, the, examiner's, approval.

By "token" I mean an ngram which doesn't have to be unique, so the above text just has 17 1grams.

Clearly there are a lot more 2gram types than 1gram types. However the frequency counts reflect multiple usage and so use token counts not type counts. If in the above we count tokens rather than types how many 2grams are there?

Well, each word apart from the last word, "approval", is the first word of a 2gram. Hence there are 16 2grams in the text. However, if the text is an extract from a much bigger piece of text then "approval" will also be the first word of a 2gram if ngrams, where n > 1, are allowed to span sentences. Hence counting tokens there are the same number of 2grams as 1grams and hence we can indeed compare ngram frequencies where n can vary.

  • And your evidence for this incomparability is? I don't think you understand what relative frequency means. Dec 22, 2014 at 22:27

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