Glossaries: A Tool for Understanding

Written by NWNL Intern Lucy Briody
Edited by Alison M Jones, NWNL Director

No Water No Life Summer 2018 Intern Lucy Briody is a sophomore at Colgate University where she is majoring in Environmental Geography and minoring in English and Women’s Studies. Part of her work this summer has been dedicated to creating an updated and relevant glossary for the new NWNL website, launching later this summer.

Note from NWNL Director Alison M Jones: The NWNL Glossary of Watershed Terms, which Lucy helped edit this summer, will appear on our new NWNL website this fall.  Stay tuned. Meanwhile, this week the esteemed Lapham’s Quarterly serendipitously posted a more literary “Glossary: Water / From acre-foot to water birth, the language of water by their Senior Editor Leopold Froehlich.  Here’s to the myriad of glossaries we can peruse and use!

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If you’ve ever been lost in a foreign country, signed a contract or tried to explain to parent or grandparent how to use an iPhone, then you understand how important a common language is in promoting comprehension, getting work done or efficiently making a birthday post on Facebook. In the scientific world, a common language is perhaps even more crucial. Scientists use very exact terms to specify and categorize; however such terms can confuse the average layman. For example, while the Latin name of species can seem obtuse to the layman, for those versed in scientists’ use of binomial nomenclature, the Latin name provides insight into the family, genus and species to which they belong.

The glossary is part of the path to understanding. It is not necessarily a complete guide, but rather serves as a tool. In order to use this tool most effectively when confronted with a complex subject, a reader should begin to get a feel for the concept through lay articles intended for the average reader rather than a scientific audience. Once a basic understanding has been reached, the glossary can help the individual more easily comprehend scientific articles that would have been far too complex without an explanation of unfamiliar terminology. Glossaries simplify important terms, critical to comprehension of many materials, by providing easily understandable definitions.

During my summer internship with No Water No Life, it was clear that watersheds have tremendous impacts on the lives and livelihoods of those who live and work in them. It is important to clearly communicate with watershed “stakeholders” the impacts and consequences of both natural and man-made processes happening around them. My job at NWNL was to complete and augment the project’s draft of a Watershed Glossary. I quickly understood that clarity and comprehension are critical to raising awareness actions needed to keep our ecosystems healthy in today’s rapidly changing world.

If environmental  jargon and terms describing the quality and availability of our freshwater supplies are not able to be clarified with tools such as a glossary, it limits the likelihood of watershed residents participation. To underline that, below is the definition of “citizen science” that I contributed to the NWNL glossary.

Citizen Science provides valuable support to many fields of data-driven exploration and research. The participation and contributions of non-scientists and amateur scientists from the public helps in collecting data and performing experiments, which may be simple but demand  a rigorous and objective commitment. Citizen scientists often contribute a tacit understanding and valuable local knowledge. As well, their involvement and gained knowledge helps bridge the gap between hard-core science and local people and cultures. Thus, citizen science – whether that of individuals, teams or networks – often raises levels of interest, knowledge and commitment of others. An example of citizen science documented by NWNL is the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in New Orleans, which encourages citizens to collect their own data regarding air quality.

Jones_100522_NJ_1027Citizen scientists, including Lauren Theis from the Upper Raritan Watershed Association, during stream water monitoring training. 

Interestingly, both citizen science and glossaries are tools that help counterbalance the possibility of science or other erudite subjects appearing exclusionary and limited to those with limited experience. Citizen science and glossaries are each key to bridging such gaps and promoting greater public involvement in issues that affect us all.

As the modern world changes at a rapid pace, many new technical and conversational terms are added to our vocabulary.  Many formerly common words are used less frequently, and are thus less understood. For over 2,000 years, glossaries have been a critical tool to helping civilizations face increasing pressure to be informed and knowledgeable about all that is going on around us – no matter how complex. Glossaries help each of us achieve a broader perspective.  Glossaries are critical to ensuring that scientific knowledge gained in the past can continue to be used to make the world around us a better place for all.

Jones_100522_NJ_0884.jpgCitizen scientists during the Upper Raritan Watershed Association stream water monitoring training. 

 

Photos © Alison M. Jones.

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