An interesting thing about being interdisciplinary is that you realise that different branches of science can actually have very different culture behind them. In many ways, the two departments I work in, physical chemistry and astronomy, are very different places. This goes all the way down to use of language and certain terminologies used during seminars. Every now and again, then, I pick up on something which seems out of place. The word “cartoon” for instance…

The word cartoon seems to be frequently misused in many of the chemistry talks I’ve been to, to mean illustration or schematic. And frankly, as someone who used to create such illustrations, it unsettles me a little every time I’m sitting in a talk and I hear a speaker say something along the lines of “…and this next slide shows a cartoon of the reaction.” It unsettles me because I used to be a scientific illustrator, not a scientific cartoonist; Yes, scientific cartoonists do exist, and no I really wouldn’t want to be mistaken for one! That slide may show something a bit like this:

This particular image is even labelled on Wikimedia Commons as File:Emulsion Polymerization Cartoon 3.svg, but I really fail to see in what way it could be described as a “cartoon” of a reaction. Why? Because this is a cartoon of a reaction:

Indeed, the Random House Dictionary defines the word cartoon as:

car·toon   /kɑrˈtun/

  1. a sketch or drawing, usually humorous, as in a newspaper or periodical, symbolizing, satirizing, or caricaturing some action, subject, or person of popular interest.
  2. comic strip.
  3. animated cartoon.
  4. Fine Arts. a full-scale design for a picture, ornamental motif or pattern, or the like, to be transferred to a fresco, tapestry, etc.–adjective
  5. resembling a cartoon or caricature: The novel is full of predictable, cartoon characters, never believable as real people.

Which certainly seems to make the word highly inappropriate to use interchangeably with words like illustration, depiction, diagram or graphic.

Maybe this misuse stems from the same part of the human brain which considers the use of the font Comic Sans MS to be acceptable in lecture slides and other formal documents (this makes the typographer in me weep uncontrollably every time I see it happening). Either way, can we all stop abusing the English language and start using the correct words for things now?

That is all.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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6 Responses to Cartoons?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank You
    Thank you for the authoritative critique.
    I find the use by native speakers in regional colleges in Texas.
    I have yet to find it in a serious work that was merely translated poorly.
    If anyone does find such evidence, please post.
    Until them I will assume a rule I developed here in the loan star state: Ignorance spreads faster than intelligence.
    If no one else has articulated this rule before, I would like to claim it.

  2. Do you think it stems from mistranslations from other languages?
    Eg. in another language, cartoon and diagram might be the same word, so they use them interchangeably in English.

  3. 6_bleen_7 says:

    I can vouch for biology and genetics, though molecular biology was the worst by a pretty big margin.
    And I shouldn’t even get started on the horrors of Comic Sans.

  4. moon_razor says:

    I agree, I simply refuse to read posters that use comic sans font.

  5. pax_athena says:

    Hmm, never encountered “cartoon” being used for “diagram”, luckily. But I’ve seen a few talks at different conferences done in Comic Sans MS ;_; And had a whole lecture done in this fond. Ouch …

  6. invaderxan says:

    Interesting… I’ve never seen it used in physics, only chemistry. Maybe things just spread faster through different fields.

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