Why do we say that?

We chemists love our jargon.  Oftentimes for good reason; it would be cumbersome to describe a material as “having a tendency to absorb moisture from the air” over and over again.  Instead, the word hygroscopic gets the point across succinctly.  Examples of this sort of jargon abound, with the IUPAC Gold Book defining some 6400 unique terms.

The type of language that’s used in the chemical literature actually gives us a window into the work being done over time.  A while back Stu compiled 115 years of JACS article titles into word clouds binned by decade.  The result?  A visual representation of a century of chemical research.  While you see words like “synthesis,” “stereochemistry,” and “nano” reflecting changes in research interests over the years, you also see steady usage of words like “new,” “efficient,” “direct,” and “novel.”

This brings up a second set of chemistry jargon terms which generally do not describe specific and well-defined concepts.  Instead of jargon, one might just call these terms adjectives common in the chemical literature.  We like to poke fun at the use of words like novel, concise, and robust.  Who gets to decide if a preparation is concise, or if a given synthesis is more or less robust than those that preceded it?   After all, there’s more than one way to talk about synthetic efficiency.

Bringing me to my topic du jour, just today I came across the umpteenth paper ascribing the mechanism of a particular reaction to the “steric and electronic properties” of the starting materials.


16,000+ results, see I’m not crazy

What other kinds of properties can reactants have?  Aren’t all properties just emergent from either sterics or electronics?  The chemical-reductionists among us would argue that all properties are emergent from quantum mechanics anyway:

It’s not factually incorrect to say that a reaction behaves the way it does because of sterics and electronics, but that description could apply to literally every reaction.  Find me a reaction mechanism that isn’t governed by S&E, and we’ll talk.  This kind of language treads dangerously close to the territory of the not even wrong.

The S&E argument, like many other broad but factually true statements from the literature, is in all likelihood just a euphemism for “it is what it is.”  Maybe it’s time to assemble a list of useless phrases for a literature bingo game…


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