Words matter; and we should take pedantic exception to their misuse – a common media trait. For example, I read a couple of years ago of the rare catch of a coelacanth, headlined as ‘dinosaur fish’. What on earth is a ‘dinosaur fish’? Dinosaur means frightful lizard, applied to a highly successful group of reptiles that included the occasional ferocious carnivore, but which became extinct some 65 million years ago. However, although some reptiles inhabit the sea, they are not fish – and coelacanths are not lizards, which have backbones. The coelacanth’s lack of a true backbone testifies to its ancient origins, long pre-dating the dinosaurs it survives.
Metaphorical use of ‘dinosaur’ – to indicate outmoded, irrelevant, extinct – is inappropriate here, considering the coelacanth’s scientific significance and the fact that it is still with us. (In fact, referring to anything as ‘dinosaur’ in this fashion is disrespectful and misplaced; the dinosaurs were a highly successful, longevous group of animals that make us human newcomers pretty irrelevant on a geological timescale.) ‘Pre-historic’ or ‘ancient’ would have provided the requisite rhetorical force. If you really want to come face to face with a dinosaur, consider ornithology.
The media give priority to quickly ensnaring and holding the reader. I once attended a lecture by a member of a University’s media office, who listed the key media referents for appealing to readers: Star trek, The X-Files, Dolly the sheep, Frankenstein, medical ‘miracles’, dinosaurs, and other ‘science’ stuff. So, to make a story about the netting of an ancient fish readable, it was assigned to the most ‘relevant’ category. Think how many times you’ve read of ‘Frankenstein science’ (eg animal-human ‘hybrid embryos’), or how often Dolly gets mentioned when ‘cloning’ makes the news.
Does this matter? Yes: it is important on two counts. First, media reporting of science stories contributes substantially to the public understanding, which is thus compromised by such erroneousness. (Imagine a submitted scientific manuscript labelling a coelacanth as a dinosaur; it wouldn’t get out to review.) Second, in the long term, misrepresentation of science in the public domain, although it does little harm to the media, is detrimental to science’s standing in the public eye. Insulting the coelacanth might not induce too much concern, but other things misleadingly invoke the fear factor.
Language evolves, and words do come to take on additional and/or different meanings over time (and distance). (My former aging English teacher used to describe how she once upset a young colleague by referring to him as a gay bachelor.) This is fine, but misappropriating science can result in conflict in the public mind. For ease of conveyance and communicability, the new is shoe-horned into existing knowledge folders conforming to abiding schemata, but with occasional misrepresentation and supposition as consequence. However, this isn’t all the fault of the media. Consider the effect of the word ‘cloning’.