morphology

You may note in these pages and in other etymological works that famous people seemed to have coined a lot of words. Often, the famous people were not actually the first to use a particular word or phrase, but rather their usage is the oldest surviving example and they get credit by default. Naturally, we tend to preserve the works of famous people and great writers, and the letters, diaries, and other writings of ordinary folk are lost to the ages.

Morphology, however, is not one of these cases. It was actually coined by a famous person. More interesting, however, are the circumstances under which it was coined.

The famous person in question is none other than Johann Wolfgang Goethe, arguably the greatest of German poets. That such a man of letters should coin a phrase is unremarkable, except that it was coined in a work on biology. Goethe, in addition to his literary talents, was a rather good naturalist. In 1817, he published Zur Naturwissenschaft uberhaupt, besonders zur Morphologic. In that work, he combined two Greek roots, morph meaning shape, and -ology meaning science, to create a word for the study of shape and structure of living organisms.

Within a few years the word was being used in English works on biology, introduced via translations of French works that used the term. From Robert Knox’s 1828 translation of J.H. Cloquet’s System of Human Anatomy:

Descriptive Anatomy...is itself capable of being divided into the Particular Anatomy of Organs, or Morphology, and the Anatomy of Regions, or Topographical Anatomy, if we may use the expression.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

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