About Us

We are members of the Andrew Gonzalez lab , in the Biology Department at McGill University.
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Monday, July 6, 2009

Turbo Eco-jargon

Language is fluid and ever-changing, and the creation of new scientific terms can be useful if it makes the language more precise, but it also makes our work less accessible for those unfamiliar with specific literature and to the general public. When we start using overly specialised words as a substitute for more commonplace words, it becomes “turbo eco-jargon”.

An example of eco-jargon that works is the term ‘biodiversity’. It shortens ‘biological diversity’ to one word and still retains its meaning. However, most times we create and use terms that are not intuitive and/or not well defined. This can be especially problematic when terms have a common use, but a very specific scientific use, which may also differ among disciplines. Some examples are: stability, productivity, resilience, traits, and function(ing).

I am probably one of the worst in our lab for using eco-jargon (I was actually scolded by an editor once for my use of ‘turbo eco-jargon’ – his exact words!). But I like creating and using highly specialised words because I think they are fun.

Here are a list of some of my long-term favourite turbo eco-terms; how many do you know? (see comments for definitions)

• cursorial
• vagile / vagility
• phoretic / phoresy
• inquilinism / inquiline
• corticolous
• detrital

Currently I'm working on a manuscript to coin a new eco-term. I'll keep you posted!

Thanks to Biodude for feedback on this post. I look forward to your comments.


  1. cursorial - describes an organism as being adapted specifically to walking or running

    vagile / vagility - an organisms ability to move about and disperse

    phoretic / phoresy - one animal attaching to another for transportation; hitchhiking; being moved by

    inquilinism / inquiline - using a second organism for housing

    corticolous - bark-dwelling, e.g. corticolous epiphytic bryophytes – moss growing on trees

    detrital - decomposer system associated with accumulations of organic matter (detritus) like forest floors, moss, canopy soils, but also litter input to aquatic systems – geologist use the term with respect to mineral soils

  2. Okay, I'm stumped. I agree that biodiversity is now a de facto contraction of biological diversity, but I do not agree that this was the word's original meaning. Historically the word seems to have arisen in the context of political activism surrounding the 'biodiversity crisis', and as such it arguably contains a suite of values that are not present in 'biological diversity.' So perhaps the easy example of 'turbo eco-jargon' is not actually so easy?

    I'm not sure what this says about the broader implications of turbo eco-jargon. Maybe we need still more words to allow precise communication of ideas. Maybe we should adopt fewer words and rely on context for communication, as this seems to be what we're already doing. Splitter, lumper, we just can't win.

  3. I like the new term. The bryosphere lies above the pedosphere (i.e. the forest floor) and the lithosphere, below the atmosphere, and is distinct from the hydrosphere, though it may be contiguous.
    Does the bryosphere include lichens?