Everyday Words With Differenct Academic Meanings


The queer community uses ‘asexual’ in a very specific way to refer to orientation (low-to-no- sexual attraction). Some people are homosexual, some people are bisexual, heterosexual, pansexual and… asexual.

In non-queer spaces, the word ‘asexual’ is used in various different ways independent from the central contemporary meaning of orientation.

Even within academic literature, there is a frequent misuse of ‘asexual’ when ‘desexualisation’ is far better.

I mark a difference between asexuality and desexualisation. Asexuality, or low-to-no sexual attraction to others, I take for granted as a real sexual identity and orientation that can exist at any age as well as emerging later in life. Further, I mark desexualisation as a harmful process of barring or preventing access to sex, sexual fulfilment, and sexual identity. Understood in this way, asexuality and desexualisation are not one and the same, since asexuality is affirmatively embraced as a component of identity, and desexualisation is a process by which equitable access to sex and sexual expression is prevented.

Ela Przybylo, “Ageing asexually: exploring desexualisation and ageing intimacies in Sex and Diversity In Later Life, 2021.


Dr Linda Griffith, Professor of Biological and Mechanical Engineering at MIT, herself has endometriosis and turned her attention towards finding out more about it. She also noticed a difference between how medical doctors use the word ‘benign’ is different from how patients use it and hear it.

When doctors say ‘benign’ they generally mean something does not invade nearby tissue or spread to other parts of the body in the way cancer can.

When patients hear ‘benign’ they feel minimised. Most endometriosis patients are women, and are used to having pain dismissed.

But endometriosis does invade nearby tissue and it can kill, despite not being cancer.

[An eminent doctor] would always refer to endometriosis as a ‘benign’ disease. “And I was very offended by this. I said, ‘It’s not a benign disease.’ He says, ‘Oh, you know, it’s a medical term.’ I’m like, I don’t care. I’m your patient and I’m hearing what you’re saying and you’re a human, and that word carries a meaning. I understand on a pathology report it means one thing but outside a pathology report it has no business in any of our discussions.” So she starts lobbying to have this wording changed.

Vox Unexplainable podcast: “The Mysteries of Endometriosis”

This is an instance of everyday usage affecting medical usage, though only through the hard work of an individual with significant power. In Dr Griffith’s email signature she writes: “Please don’t refer to endometriosis [and similar diseases] as ‘benign diseases’. They are common and morbid. Dr Griffith argues that when doctors apply for grant funds to research this ‘benign’ disease, this could be the reason why so little funding has been allocated.

Endometriosis is now — correctly — called ‘common and morbid’.


A college professor taught me the word “casuistry” when it came up in office hours during a conversation we were having about a presentation I was slated to give on John Donne. It has two definitions: the first more technical definition has something to do with applying abstract rules to concrete instances. The second, in more common usage, is something like “specious, sophistic reasoning.” It’s especially associated with the Jesuits, who (allegedly) used it to rationalize light punishments for aristocratic sinners. It’s a great word. I especially like to use it when I’m losing an argument, because even if, say, my husband is being perfectly logical, nothing undermines a debate by calling him a casuist.



There’s a tendency to casually conflate ‘Christianity’ with ‘Western’. In the modern world, 90% of Christians are cultural descendants of this Western European tradition, but that leaves 10% who have a non-Western European background.

the branch of Christianity that eventually evolved into the Roman Catholic church was just one branch among many:

  • Syrian Christians
  • Armenian Christians
  • Ethiopian Christians
  • Chaldean Christians
  • etc.

The branch connected to the Catholic church exploded in size, so this dominates much of our thinking around Christianity today. This Roman Catholic branch of Christianity changed many aspects of family:

  • Banned marriage between cousins (and other family members)
  • Preferred neolocal residence (a type of post-marital residence in which a newly married couple resides separately from both the husband’s natal household and the wife’s natal household).
  • Tried to end arranged marriages

All this had the unintended consequence of creating monogamous nuclear families. (Unintended because the church was simply enforcing what it believed God wanted; small families weren’t the aim.) This is what we tend to associate with Christian morality today.


The word ‘difference’ is an example where the use of a term in psychology might not be the same as its use in general conversation, or in the public understanding of what it means. At a simple level the term ‘different’ obviously implies ‘not the same.’ Suppose you were traveling to an island and you were told that there were two different tribes that you might meet and that you should be aware of the differences between them. You could then get into the key points of difference and the niceties of ‘how different” for example, Tribe 1 might be on average about six feet four inches tall while Tribe 2 are on average about four feet ten inches; or members of Tribe 1 might have very long straight black hair, as opposed to members of Tribe 2, who have short curly blond hair. You would probably at the very least infer that ‘different’ here meant recognizably different–so that if you were to meet a tall individual with straight black hair you would be secure in the knowledge that they belonged to Tribe 1–or reliably different–so that if you were told you were going to meet a member of Tribe 2, you would be safe in your expectation to find someone short with curly fair hair. But these are not necessarily the sorts of conclusions you can draw from psychological studies that report sex differences.

In psychology, ‘different’ is often used in its statistical sense, where the average scores of the two groups you are investigation are sufficiently far apart to pass a particular statistical threshold. You can then report that whatever it is that you are measuring is ‘different’ in the two groups. But this can often mask the really important ‘how different’ issue. Each of your two groups will have generated scores that are distributed around the average that you have measured, and those two distributions might overlap quite markedly. This means that you can’t reliably predict how a member of one of the groups will perform on the task you have set or what kind of score they will get on a personality test. And you can’t recognize from someone’s test score which group they belong to. The groups are really more similar than they are different. So although there is a statistical difference, it isn’t necessarily a useful or meaningful difference.

Gina Rippon, Gender and Our Brains, “The Rise of Psychobabble”.


In everyday English we tend to think of these words synonymously but Covid-19 has put paid to that. New Zealand was one of the first countries saying that they had ‘eliminated’ the virus, which had some people scratching their heads because the virus was clearly still around. There were still a few people in hospital with it, and a few others isolating at home.

Here in Australia, with about the same number of proportional cases, people began to wonder if New Zealand was maybe tooting their own horn by saying the virus had been ‘eliminated’. It was subsequently explained that when virologists say ‘eliminated’ they are saying something specific: Eradication refers to the reduction to zero (or a very low defined target rate) of new cases in a defined geographical area. New Zealand was correct to announce that they had eradicated Covid-19, while also telling New Zealanders that they also weren’t in a position to fully reopen the country and return to normal life.

Elimination is much more difficult. We’ll be able to say Covid-19 has been ‘eliminated’ after the complete and permanent worldwide reduction to zero new cases after deliberate efforts.


Scientists generally use the term “epidemic” to refer to a disease that occurs suddenly in a discrete population, an outbreak. An epidemic is not declared on the basis of high numbers but on the speed or rate that new cases pop up. In the nineteenth century, the word was used almost exclusively to describe a wave of infectious disease. In the typical graph of an epidemic, the number of cases is plotted against a measurement of time, such as days or weeks, to show how quickly the disease is spreading.

With the notable exception of AIDS, in modern times we’ve had less experience than previous generations with fast-moving infectious diseases, like polio or smallpox, that can affect entire populations. As a result, the time component of the definition of an epidemic has become less crucial. As one consequence, the definition of ‘epidemic’ has broadened. Now, we use the word with little reference to the speed at which new cases are occurring, which puts us one step away from the original usage. And when we talk about epidemics of conditions that are not contagious — such as skin cancer, autism, anorexia nervosa, and teen pregnancy — or conditions and situations that are not even real diseases — like alien abduction, or satanic child abuse — we’re two steps away.

Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism by Roy Richard Grinker


In everyday English, fitness means cardiovascular fitness or strength, agility and mobility.

In the context of evolution, e.g. ‘Survival of the Fittest’, it means something different. Evolutionary fitness refers only to how well a species is able to reproduce in its environment. That’s it.


Occasionally a word starts off in academia, hits mainstream and then the meaning changes. Sometimes a word is ‘co-opted’. ‘Intersectional’ is one such word. Intersectionality started in legal discourse.

It was coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap. “Intersectionality” has, in a sense, gone viral over the past half-decade, resulting in a backlash from the right.


Intersectionality is by definition event-based and system-based. Individuals who experience compounding disadvantage and inequity are not the problem. The system is always the problem.

Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the concept of intersectionality, a term she coined to speak to the multiple social forces, social identities, and ideological instruments through which power and disadvantage are expressed and legitimized

liner notes from Crenshaw’s 2017 book Critical Race Theory

If you have ‘intersectional feminist’ in your bio, you’re not using the word how Crenshaw meant it to be used. If you wouldn’t say you’re a poverty feminist, don’t say you’re an intersectional feminist. It is not enough to have multiple characteristics, or to be inclusive of others with multiple identities.

A person cannot be intersectional.


Someone asked Australia’s Dr Karl on Twitter: “Does all light emit heat?” Dr Karl replied:

Depends on your definition of “light” For anastronomer / astrophysicist / cosmologist, “light” is all and any emissions across the entire electromagnetic spectrum (radio waves to gamma rays). For a physiologist, “light” is 400-700 nanometers, while “heat” is 700-10,000 nm.

Dr Karl on Twitter


In common usage, ‘natural’ = ‘good’.

The Incredible Arrogance of Thinking ‘Natural’ Means ‘Good’

This one is a marketing difference and it pays to remind oneself regularly: brown packaging and ‘natural’ on the box doesn’t mean jack. Cancer. That, too, is ‘natural’.

The word ‘natural’ should always be approached with caution.

[Nature is] perhaps the most complex word in the language.

Raymond Williams, 1976, in Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society
For more on this see: “Sexual Biology and the Symbolism of the Natural”, an essay by Leonore Tiefer found in Sex Is Not A Natural Act And Other Essays (1995).

The Lost Daughter is a movie based on an Elena Ferrante novel. The story explores how society teaches that women make natural mothers. The word ‘natural’ is used rhetorically to justify and legitimise the idea that since women are natural mothers, that is the primary and over-riding purpose of women, and to do anything else is unnatural. At this point, another usage of ‘natural’ kicks in: Nature as inherent force which directs the world, and for a woman to prioritise anything else is “contrary to nature”, a way of thinking baked so deeply into our society that the phrase is even enshrined in law.


There is [a] note of caution to sound about the reporting of research findings. If someone tells you that something is ‘significant’ — for example, that men and women are ‘significantly’ different — you probably assume that this means that this difference is important, should make you sit up and take notice. You probably don’t think, “Aha, that means there is a less than 5 in 100 possibility that this is a chance finding.” This isn’t to suggest that the research findings aren’t saying something meaningful, just that we might need to temper the ‘wow’ factor that the word ‘significant’ can sometimes imply.

Gina Rippon, Gender and Our Brains, “The Rise of Psychobubble”.


In science, symbiosis means ‘a close relationship’. There are four main kinds of symbiosis, one of which is mutualism.

In everyday English, when people talk about ‘a symbiotic relationship’ we are most often talking about mutualism, or ‘a mutual relationship’. ‘Mutually symbiotic relationship’ would be technically more accurate.

Apart from mutualism,  three other types of symbiosis are:

  1. Commensalism, in which one species benefits while the other remains unaffected
  2. Parasitism, in which one species benefits while the other is harmed
  3. Neutralism, in which both species are unaffected


Symmetry is something we all recognize. At least, we recognize — some of us, when we hear the word “symmetry,” we only think of bilateral symmetry, the symmetry that our face has or symmetry that some building of a church has and so on. But in mathematics there are many types of symmetry. So there is what we call “symmetry under translation,” which is a symmetry that you might encounter in, I don’t know, in wallpaper, for example, where you have a certain motif that repeats itself as you move in a certain direction. Or you might encounter it in a work of music, where a certain thing repeats itself as the piece goes along. So that’s one type of symmetry.

Symmetry, basically, is a quantity that describes something that does not change. You do something, and things don’t change. For example, in the case of the bilateral symmetry, it means you basically reflect it in a mirror, and it doesn’t change. Or if you take a phrase like “Madam, I’m Adam,” this is a palindrome, which means if I read it from the back to the front, it also reads “Madam, I’m Adam.” So that’s symmetric, under this back-to-front operation and so on. So there are many symmetries, and we encounter them in shapes, we encounter them in music, we encounter them in a variety of arts, and we encounter them in physics and in the sciences.

Now, mathematicians came up with a language to describe all these symmetries, and I mean all these symmetries. Everything I just mentioned falls under one type of mathematical language, and that is the language that’s called group theory.

Mario Livio in conversation with Krista Tippett at the On Being podcast. (Transcript here.)


In everyday language, a theory is something that hasn’t been proven. We use it to mean ‘hypothesis’.

I don’t know why socks go missing but I have a  theory.

MARK COLVIN: Do you think that to a degree [the theory of evolution is] a communication failure by science? Do you think that just the very word, “theory”, in the “theory of evolution” has misled people?

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, I think that’s not the only communication failure. I think that simply not bothering to go out there and talk in the public square is part of the problem.

from this interview

Here’s how the word ‘theory’ works in scientific literature, compared to some similar words:

  • Hypothesis–> An educated (or uneducated) guess
  • Science Method–> The 7 step process to test said guess
  • Theory–> The “why” of something works
  • Law–> The “what” of something that works

via Freethought Blogs.


Common Usage: Man-made chemicals

Scientific Usage: Biologically produced poisons.

(Toxoid: A toxin which has been rendered no longer toxic eg. a vaccination is ‘toxoid’, which doesn’t exactly help the vaccination cause.)


When thinking about the origin of science and philosophy we often show a tendency to underestimate the value of myth. It was critical, rational thinking that replaced the irrational, mythical approach to unknown phenomena. We treat myth as a fable or fairy tale invented by primitive people to recount to their sons and grandsons. However, the story has yet another aspect. There is something unknown, something that transcends our current knowledge and we want to comprehend it, but we are lacking adequate tools to do so. Therefore, we create a myth so that we might at least assimilate this unknown into the realm of our actions. It is true that science and philosophy have converted many myths into rational knowledge, but it is far from true that we no longer use myths.

In some schools of contemporary philosophy the myth concept is still widely employed, but it has evolved into a kind of technical term. Myth in this sense refers to a reality that evades any precise linguistic description. Since this reality cannot be precisely described in our language, it cannot enter into a logical nexus with any linguistic description of our experience. This does not mean that this reality cannot be experienced, but, if it is experienced, it transcends any logically organized linguistic description.

from A Comprehensible Universe: The interplay of Science and Theology


Space and dimension mean different things to physicists and mathematicians than they do to the ordinary person in the street. This is a very hard topic to get your head around if you’re not an astrophysicist, so I’ll leave you with the podcast, a conversation between Ezra Klein and Sean Carroll. They talk about this difference at about the 26 minute mark.


You could argue that ‘heritability’ isn’t exactly an everyday English word, but any English speaker would hear it and know it relates to the word ‘heredity’.

A Question of Upbringing, Cover drawing by Osbert Lancaster. First published in Penguin in 1962

Generalists still tend to focus on a binary of ‘nature vs nurture’, a concept that should be retired. Geneticists are now very clear that nature and nurture are constantly interacting with each other. Therefore, the meaning of heritability is more specific than the generalist might assume.

Many features of humans have been shaped by culture, so things like the way tools and fire have shaped our hands and our intestines and our digestive systems. And then I think a lot of our big brains expanded as a response of having to learn lots of cultural information about how to make tools and shelters and arrow poisons and things like that, so this complex body of knowledge that transmits non-genetically. In many ways, I think our brains have evolved to be good at acquiring all that information. … we have to get beyond this kind of dualistic way of thinking, where there’s genetic things that we think of as biological and then there’s cultural learned things which seem to be almost ethereal. When we learn culture, that wires things into our brains … whether we’re learning a language or we’re learning to juggle, if we’re learning the complexity of streets in London, we know that this alters, for example, our hippocampus. And so you get physical changes in the sub-structure, which means that cultural evolution is a kind of biological evolution. It’s just not a kind of genetic evolution.

Joe Henrich

Heritability is a ‘descriptive statistic’. Like all descriptive statistics, it can change in populations over time. This heritability statistic describes the extent to which differences that we observe in a trait (e.g. propensity to alcoholism) are due to inherited DNA differences between people, in a certain population at a certain time.

Generalists mistakenly confuse what is with what could be. Heritability describes the extent to which people differ in propensity to alcoholism, and to what extent that is due to availability to alcohol etc. vs inherited DNA differences.

Another caveat about heritability: Geneticists can only work within the range that they are able to study. This typically covers about 95% of a population but doesn’t include the extremes e.g. single gene mutations, nor does it include the environmental extremes e.g. abuse/neglect.

In short, the descriptive statistic of heritability is not fate.


What scientists say in research papers vs. What they actually mean, from io9

This blog is all about narrative theory, storytelling and literature. A few words used differently by specialists in this area, compared to how they are understood by ‘the man on the street’: surrealism and melodrama.