Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Jargon

While reading Gary Stix's interview with Breaking Bad scientific advisor Prof. Donna Nelson, I stumbled upon a very telling chunk of text (emphasis mine):
"...the reduction step [for methamphetamine production] can vary from one synthesis to another, and there's a lot of differences in the reducing agents. And so I said, I don't know what reagent you want. They said to send them a list, and they liked the one that was aluminum-mercury because it would be easier for the actors to say those words.
That's another example of where I let [the producers] be boss. I wouldn't go back to them and suggest another reagent because it might be safer, cheaper, or have a higher yield. I just said, 'yes, sir.'"
"Sodium cyanoborohydride? No way am I saying that!"
Credit: AMC
Food for thought, especially for those of us trying to package chemistry in a more palatable format for folks outside the lab. But, the more I scratched my head over this situation, the more I wondered...are reducing agents that tough to pronounce?

Over at xkcd, Randall Munroe cheekily trounced our current cultural fixation on trochees, spoken words with a two-syllable stressed / unstressed pattern (ninja, pizza, Wal-Mart, Ke$ha, Xbox, etc.). "Aluminum-mercury," though taken right from the periodic table, hardly rolls off the tongue: seven* syllables!

"Classic" reagents for the reaction in question, like sodium cyanoborohydride (10 syllables) or sodium tris-acetoxyborohydride (12) certainly won't get by the writers without a grumble. But what about formic acid (4, with two trochees)? Raney nickel (4, two trochees) should also pass muster. Even better, maybe you could just fold the first two reductants into the generic "borane" (2, trochee) category?

Hey, AMC: Let's do lunch.

*And, of course, 8 if you live in the UK, and add that extra "i" to aluminium!


  1. Don't you mean 8 syllablee if you're part of IUPAC? That 'extra i' is in fact part of the standard, approved spelling.

    1. Touche. Suppose that makes we Americans the true outliers, eh?

    2. Well, to be fair, Humphrey Davy DID call it aluminum before he called in aluminium, and it wasn't until about 170 years later that IUPAC picked aluminium over aluminum. So aluminum was WELL established as a name before IUPAC jumped into this lexicographic mess.

  2. they probably meant that it was easier to memorize aluminium-mercury than some obscure common name.

    1. Oh, certainly. But allow me to add another wrinkle: Actors on set have consultants and producers off-camera, ready to prompt them with lines or advise staging, actions, inflection, etc. Wouldn't it be simple and practical just to have one of the easier-to-say chemicals cued up?

  3. A fewer number of syllables doesn't necessarily mean a word will be easier to say. It's more about how easily it's memorized and if it rolls off the tongue. People abbreviate Dallas-Fort Worth with DFW. Even though the abbreviation was more syllables, it's still easier to say.