Chemical nomenclature and Asimov on Speaking Gaelic - The Irish Washerwoman and Para-dimethylaminobenzaldehydeRead Now
For non-chemists, and even for many scientists, chemical names can be particularly vexing. Take for example the compound para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde (pronounced: PA-ruh-dy-METH-il-a-MEE-nohben-ZAL-duh-hide).
I mean, seriously, if the average person were walking down the street and somebody yelled “PA-ruh-dy-METH-il-a-MEE-nohben-ZAL-duh-hide” at them, they would probably reply with anything from “Watch your language” to “Up yours”! As it turns out this chemical is also known as Ehrlich's reagent, after the German Nobel Prize winning Physician who discovered it, Paul Ehrlich. Para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde has a long and distinguished history where it has been used in various analytical, chemical, biochemical, and industrial applications.
So why not call it Ehrlich’s reagent and simplify things? Well, some scientist do, but the advantage of using the chemical name is that any scientist familiar with the rules of chemical nomenclature will know what compound you are talking about even if they have never seen it before in their lives. This is because every single syllable in para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde has information regarding the chemical groups that make up this compound and how they are bonded together. And not only that, each of these words has a fascinating history as to their origin and the many permutations that they went through before coming to symbolize the chemical entities they represent today.
Still, you may argue that para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde sounds Greek to you; or perhaps “Gaelic”?
Back in March of 1963, the science fiction writer extraordinaire Isaac Asimov published a remarkable article in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Although the article was referred to by the editors as “one of Dr. Asimov’s insufferably tedious articles”, it traced the amazing story of the origin of each section of the name para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde.
In the article, Asimov relates that way back when he was a practicing scientist he went to the reagent shelf to search for this chemical and asked a person if they had some. This person tried to be whimsical at his expense (which was a no-no when it came to the great Isaac Asimov) by singing the name of the chemical to the tune of the traditional Irish jig “The Irish Washerwoman”. Asimov, of course, put him in his place, but he couldn’t shake the melody from his head, and found himself singing over and over para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde to the tune of the "Irish Washerwoman", sometimes out loud. Once he did this in an office in the presence of an Irish receptionist, who then commended him for singing the words of the melody in the original Gaelic language!
Asimov then undertakes the task of teaching his readers to “speak Gaelic” by which he means to pronounce chemical names. For this he dives into the rich and complex history of the chemical nomenclature behind para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde that spans several centuries of human cultural and technological developments. It is a fantastic tale that takes the reader from the islands of Sumatra and Java in Southeast Asia, to the temples erected in Egypt to the God Amun, and to the laboratories of leading chemists in Germany, England, Sweden, and France. It is a story involving women’s makeup and camel dung, Greek prefixes and philosophers, Arabic traders and alchemists, and of course, wood alcohol. I encourage you to read the original article in page 72 of the magazine. It is a delightful piece that reveals the sheer wonder behind what otherwise appears to be a cryptic and boring science word, and which also showcases the mastery and scientific knowledge of Asimov. Remember that he wrote this in 1963 before the internet was available to search for information.
In view of the foregoing, it is only fitting that John Carroll has composed a drinking song (The Chemist’s Drinking Song) inspired by Asimov’s story to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman” with lyrics that incorporate the word: para-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde. In case the song is too fast for you to appreciate, there is also a slower version with slightly altered lyrics and some visuals that you can watch below.
Asimov passed away in 1992, but his wit and brilliance are still with us in the 500 plus fiction and non-fiction books that he wrote or edited.
The chemical formula by Rifleman 82 is in the public domain.
Asimov’s Photograph from the New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection is in the public domain.