Jewish World Review July 1, 2004 / 12 Tamuz, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Origin of 'vitamin'; 'binnacle list'
I'm curious to know how the word "vitamin,'' which I know first appeared in the early 1900s, originated. It sounds to me more like a brand name than a scientific designation - was the word coined in a laboratory or a corporate boardroom?
E.T., Passaic, N.J.
The story behind the word "vitamin'' actually begins in the late 19th century, when a new method of processing rice called "polishing'' was invented. Polishing removed the germ of the rice grain. This appealing-looking white rice became the new staple for people all over Asia.
Shortly thereafter, an alarming rise in the number of deaths due to the disease beriberi was noted in the Dutch colonies in the East Indies. A team of medical scientists sent to investigate concluded that beriberi was caused by the lack of a substance previously provided in the diet by the whole rice grain.
Further beriberi research was carried on in a U.S. lab by a Polish-born scientist named Casimir Funk. Based on the mistaken belief that the "anti-beriberi'' substance was a specific type of organic compound called an amine, in 1912 he proposed the name "vitamine,'' combining "amine'' with "vita,'' the Latin word for "life.'' The new term was intended to include the range of substances that were by then known to be essential in preventing the diseases beriberi, scurvy and rickets.
Up until then, for lack of a better name, these substances had been designated "accessory food factors.'' We're not sure what inspired Funk to coin the far catchier "vitamine,'' but his word was open to criticism among scientists, primarily because, though the chemical nature of the substances was still far from being fully understood, ultimately there was nothing to indicate that they were amines.
The matter was finally settled when it was proposed that the "e'' be dropped, and that "-in'' be considered an acceptable ending for a "neutral substance of undefined composition.'' At the same time, the suggestion was made that the already-known substances called fat-soluble A, water-soluble B and water-soluble C be called simply Vitamins A, B, and C. By 1922 both the American and English Chemical Societies had voted to officially adopt the spelling "vitamin.'' (The "-ine'' spelling continued to occur intermittently for another dozen years or so before it mostly fizzled out.)
It was in the 1920s, also, that the discoveries and the word finally reached a widespread public. Early advertisers actually had a bit of problem with the scientific sound of "vitamin,'' but nonetheless, they jumped on the bandwagon with slogans such as "Snider's catsup is made from the richest vitamin food.''
Vitamins continued to be named alphabetically through Vitamin H (biotin), which was named in 1935. That same year, the sequential pattern was broken by Danish scientists with the naming of Vitamin K from their word "koagulation,'' due to the substance's property of aiding in coagulation of blood.
I was in the Navy for over twenty years. It was common naval practice to use the expression "binnacle list'' for the sick list, and I always wondered why. Can you provide any information?
H.J., Harrisburg, Pa.
As with many military terms that are often based on tradition, the "binnacle list'' derives its name from a once common nautical practice.
As you point out, "binnacle list'' contains the names of personnel excused from duty because of illness or injury. The list is compiled daily to inform the officer in charge about the health status of the crew.
The "binnacle list'' gets its name from the old practice of posting the sick list on the binnacle every morning. For the benefit of those readers who are unfamiliar with nautical terms, a binnacle is a stand or support for the ship's compass. Long ago it was a wooden structure mounted in a location where the helmsman could see it easily. Placing the list on the binnacle was a convenient method of making the information readily available to the captain. Hence, the sick list became known as the "binnacle list.'' Although the list is no longer placed on the binnacle, it retains the traditional name developed from this practice.
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