The meaning of e

I found Andy Lawrence‘s blog (“the e-astronomer“) on wordpress this morning. He’s been at this lark for much longer than me and seems to have generated quite a lot of discussion about various things to do with astronomy.

His pseudonym, though, got me thinking about the prevalence of the prefix “e-” these days. Of course we’ve had e-mail for a long time. I have published an e-book but, as far as I know, nobody has ever e-read it. We have e-banking and e-commerce (although these may e-disintegrate the way things are going). You can get on a plane  using an e-ticket, and the police make e-fits to help solve crimes, although apparently only those that have been committed by cartoon characters. And then there’s also e-coli which is presumably some form of electronic medical treatment, judging by its ubiquity in news stories about British hospitals.

Universities now have “e-learning”, which may or may not be correlated with “e-teaching”, research councils do “e-science” or “e-technology” (and even sometimes even “e-research”).   But I’ve always been confused about what it means in these later manifestations.

And then there is the potential confusion with older terms involving “e”, as exemplified by the term Emeritus Professor. The meaning in this particular case is clearly explained by Stephen Leacock in his book Here are my Lectures:

“I am what is called a professor emeritus – from the Latin e meaning “out”, and meritus meaning “ought to be”.

But I think this gives  a clue as to how to interpret e-science and the rest. In these uses, e is roughly a combination of the two previous examples, conveying both its electronic nature and the association with “emeritus”, i.e. very expensive in terms of resources needed, very unlikely to produce anything interesting, but superficially impressive to those who don’t know any better and therefore occasionally useful to wheel out whenever you want to convince someone to give your department money.

The phrase “e-science” illustrates this nicely, especially in terms of its expense, its apparent appeal to politicians,  and the total lack of any impact on real science. Likewise “e-learning” is electronic gimmickry that doesn’t actually have much to do with learning, and so on.

But of course this interpretation doesn’t apply in any way shape or form to the name “e-astronomer”. Andy Lawrence is a very distinguished scientist. That’s why his real working title is Egregious Professor of Astronomy.

At least I think that’s what it says.

8 Responses to “The meaning of e”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    As a Mancunian I can’t resist suggesting that the true origin is “E” BAH GUM.

    I’ve often been surprised that people in our era of abbreviations speak of somebody’s “email address” rather than “eddress” (which is how “address” is pronounced in parts such as South Kensington anyway).

    BTW, “email” means “enamel” in French, although it’s pronounced rather differently…

    All the best

  2. e- is so 90s… isn’t everything i- nowadays?

  3. telescoper Says:


  4. Back in the knife-box, Miss Sharp.

  5. Andy’s got a great blog and definitely is a distinguished scientist. His one egregious move was to vote in favor of the demotion of Pluto at the IAU General Assembly in 2006. I hope he takes the chance to correct this in 2009.

  6. telescoper Says:

    According to my dictionary, egregious means “distinguished” or “prominent”, as well as “outrageous” or “notorious”. All in all, it seems to describe Andy rather well.

  7. In Italian calling someone ‘egregio professore’ is good, rougly equivalent to ‘distinguished’. Apparantly the usage in English got switched over due to a spate of ironic usage in the 1600’s or 1700s. So there you go – is Andy egregio or egregious? I couldn’t possibly comment.

  8. telescoper Says:

    Me neither, except to say he’s definitely not Italian.

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