The Vocabularist: When is a theory 'just a theory'?

  • 9 February 2016
Charles Darwin Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Charles Darwin said a single discovery could "annihilate my theory"

A Lancashire headmistress attracted fury with a tweet in which she said "evolution is not a fact; that's why it's called a theory".

In ancient Greece theoroi meant something like "observers". They were envoys sent by city-states to consult oracles, to give offerings at famous shrines or attend festivals.

Theoria was a word for their duties. It came to mean any act of observing, and was used by Greek philosophers, generally, in the sense of "contemplation".

Contemplating something does not challenge it - it strives to understand it, whether it is Pythagoras's theorem (theorema in Greek was an object of theoria) or some perceived divine truth.

Still today, when we take a driving theory test we are not studying a school of thought about driving which may be discredited, but general considerations on which good practice is based.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Driving Theory Test - not a philosophical examination

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10 things we didn't know last week

  • 5 February 2016
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1. It is illegal to possess more than 120 playing cards in Thailand.

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Weekend Edition: The week's best reads

  • 5 February 2016
Tom Gregory on the beach Image copyright Sam Atkins

A collection of some of the best features from the BBC News website this week, with an injection of your comments.

"This is extraordinary," tweeted Louise. "Astounding story," added Elon Dann. No-one has swum the English Channel younger, and no-one ever will. In 1988, 11-year-old Tom Gregory did something few children of his age would even contemplate. And he attributes his successful swim to his inspirational coach John Bullet, the beating heart of Eltham Training and Swimming Club in south-east London. "I loved it," Tom says. "That club changed people's lives."

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The Vocabularist: What's the root of the word computer?

  • 2 February 2016
Go board

The defeat by a computer of a human champion at the game of Go has caused much excitement. But computers used to be human themselves, writes Trevor Timpson.

"Computer" comes from the Latin "putare" which means both to think and to prune. Virgil's Georgics - depictions of country life - speak of tidying vines by pruning (fingitque putando).

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10 things we didn't know last week

  • 29 January 2016
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1. You could probably outrun a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

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Weekend Edition: The week's best reads

  • 29 January 2016
A room in a property protected by property guardians Image copyright Charlie Clemoes

A collection of some of the best features from the BBC News website this week, with an injection of your comments.

"Sounds risky, but strangely exciting!" posted Caroline Jessop. Property guardians live in buildings including disused police stations, garages, office blocks and pubs. But some come with a catch, namely rats, flies and no hot water. We look at the practice which is the setting for Channel 4's new sitcom, Crashing. "The room I moved into was strewn with clothes and heroin paraphernalia and I had to clean it up alone," says one guardian.

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The Vocabularist: Have we reached peak "peak"?

  • 26 January 2016
Mountain peak in Chamonix Image copyright iStock

Ikea's sustainability director says people in the West have reached "peak stuff". It's a new peak in the use of the word "peak" itself, writes Trevor Timpson.

Steve Howard, from the Swedish furniture firm, said we might have arrived at "peak home furnishings".

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10 things we didn't know last week

  • 22 January 2016
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1. Only seven women are allowed to wear white when meeting the Pope.

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Weekend Edition: The week's best reads

  • 22 January 2016
Donald Grey Triplett in a field, as a boy Image copyright Triplett family archives

A collection of some of the best features from the BBC News website this week, with an injection of your comments.

"A really lovely read that gives me hope for growing old," tweeted Helen Ellis. Donald was sent to an institution at the age of three. Born in 1933, he was different to other children, with whom he would not play, often echoing the words of others. "We were astonished to learn how his life had turned out," write the authors of a new book about the 82-year-old, who is living in a small town in the southern United States.

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The Vocabularist: When plastics stopped being plastic

  • 20 January 2016
Coloured plastic bowls Image copyright iStock

The word "plastic" - often in the news because of pollution rows, carrier bag controversies and Ai Weiwei - has shown itself to be as adaptable as the material it describes.

Plastikos in Greek describes something which can be squashed into shape, from the verb plassein, to mould. It was used by the philosopher Plato, who wrote that of the four elements earth was the most easily moulded (plastikotate) unlike air, fire and water.

Read full article The Vocabularist: When plastics stopped being plastic