The genesis of ‘gene’

Chance in the house of fate (A natural history of heredity) by Jennifer G. Ackerman (Bloomsbury, 2001) is a slightly frustrating popular science book. As you might infer from the title, the author is rather prone to purple prose. She much prefers to let the cool facts she finds flutter around willy-nilly like so many butterflies rather than pinning them meticulously to the page.

It’s rather annoying if you are actually trying to learn new things. But the more poetical approach does make you stop and think about a few things you might take for granted like the deep historical roots of some of the words and ideas that go into the study of genetic inheritance. Like this:

The word “gene” goes back to an Indo-European root word that meant beginning and birth. This gave rise to the Old English gecynd, meaning family, kin or kind. The Greek and Latin variants blossomed into a bunch of gen words with a multitude of jobs: genus, genius, gender, gentle, generous, generation, genealogy, genesis. One Latin stem became gnatus, unfurling into innate, native, natural.

And I have to agree with Ackerman’s reaction to this etymology:

That so short and spare a word as “gene” would persist through the revolutions of language and pop in all these new, masterful forms impresses me.

(p. xvi, ibid)

Credit for the scientific use of the term is due to Danish geneticist, Wilhelm Johannsen. Much improving on Gregor Mendel’s terminology of “factors”.


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