Home Science CommunicationScholarly communication Beam me up – lab words in different countries

Beam me up – lab words in different countries

by Eva Amsen

After 6.5 years in Canadaland, I forgot that I learned some new words while here. Not many – about 2 per year – and most of them Canadian or otherwise local expressions that English-speaking folks from other parts of the world might not know, such as tuque or Zamboni. The expression “pencil crayon” that I used in a previous entry was also Canadian. I didn’t even realize that. I’m just absorbing words here and there.

I also had to relearn a few lab words when I moved, because Dutch lab-English is not the same as lab-English in other places. I learned “erlenmeyer” for “(erlenmeyer) flask” and “eppie” (as anglification of “epje”) for “Eppendorf tube”.

These little buggers have a different name according to every single person I’ve asked, in five different countries and even more labs:

My most recent lab had no name for them. When I needed one (because mine were always lost) I had to walk around with a glass pipette, making pipetting gestures while asking for the “rubber thingie for the glass pipette” to express what I needed. Bulb, balloon, pear, rubber thing, or a range of made-up words (I learned “fiepje” in Amsterdam, but a Google image search for the word only brings up people’s pets) all for this little thing.

And then there’s the matter of the projector, of course…

Two friends from Holland recently moved to Canada, and brought up something I had completely forgotten: “It’s so weird that it’s not called a beamer.”


(photo by libraryman)

Beamer! I hadn’t heard that word in ages, but that is also what I called a projector when I arrived, and so did the fresh-from-Zürich Croatian postdoc who started a few months later. But nobody else did. “Why do you call the projector a beamer?” my supervisor asked. That’s…what it’s called? It’s an English word! Like “computer” and “laptop”, “beamer” was just one of those English computer words that are used everywhere, right? Wrong. Apparently, a projector is only called a beamer in Dutch and German. It’s tricky, because it’s an English word, spelled and pronounced the English way.

“Beamer” for a projector is not English, as most of you knew well before me. It’s pseudo-English, and there is a whole list of these words on Wikipedia. Words like this are hard to unlearn when switching to English, because you automatically assume they are English. “Sheets” for overhead transparencies is also on the list of Dutch pseudo-English words. To give a presentation, you either need “sheets” for the “overhead projector”, or “powerpoint” for the “laptop” and the “beamer”. See how much English is in there? It’s very confusing that some of those words are not English after all!

Where does the word “beamer” come from? I have no clue.

I just deal with knowing different words for the same thing. Much like how, in the lab, I wrote “glucose” on the jar labeled “dextrose”, filed the IGEPAL bottle under the “N” for NP-40, and was somewhat confused in undergrad physiology when the textbook kept saying “epinephrine” where I knew it to be “adrenaline”.

It’s enough to make you want to break out the Tylenol/paracetamol.

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14 comments

Cath Ennis February 11, 2009 - 10:18 PM

I like Beamer, it’s very descriptive.
No-one in Canada seems to know what a universal or a bijou are.
I have a Dutch friend here who once confused panties and panty-hose, with hilarious consequences (no, really. She walked up to a Canadian friend at a wedding and loudly accused her of not wearing panties. The Canadian had previously provided etiquette advice to my Dutch friend that ALL Canadian women wear panties to weddings. Yes, even in the summer).

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Cath Ennis February 11, 2009 - 10:29 PM

p.s. it’s not Canadaland, it’s Canadia.

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Richard P. Grant February 12, 2009 - 2:24 AM Reply
Eva Amsen February 12, 2009 - 2:46 AM

Wha, a car in my pretty blog… [mutters] Boys…
Yeah, I just learned that that is what “beamer” means to some people. My friend who brought it up this week said that she did a little poll in her lab. She asked people “What is a beamer?” and people either said “don’t know” or “a BMW”. Huh. Language.

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Richard P. Grant February 12, 2009 - 2:48 AM

well, for small values of ‘car’.

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Jamie McQuay February 12, 2009 - 5:03 AM

I call it a beamer but i likely picked that up while living in holland…

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steffi suhr February 12, 2009 - 5:41 AM

I also always just used ‘beamer’ for the car, never for the projector. I think that was always a ‘Projektor’.
The moment I was most puzzled was when, after five years in the UK and having been on research ships there, I asked for a ‘spanner’ on a US ship. Questioning looks. After describing the tool: ‘oh, you mean a _wrench_!’.
You people don’t make it easy for non-native speakers, do you?
(Eva: don’t even get me started on pseudo-English. It makes my brain hurt)

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Bob O'Hara February 12, 2009 - 6:43 AM

People use beamer here too. I find is slightly ugly, but never mind.
English being what it is, if enough people start calling the things beamers, that’s what they will be.
Overhead sheets is already acceptable English, I think. It comes from being like a sheet of paper, and we used sheets back in the olden days, when powerpoint sounded like something to do with sticking needles in people.

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Eva Amsen February 12, 2009 - 5:25 PM

Interesting: beamer seems to be spreading!
I’m also trying to introduce “airco” for “air con” here, but it’s not catching on. I just can’t _not_ say “airco”. It comes from the same word (air conditioner), but it’s also pseudo-English.

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Jamie McQuay February 12, 2009 - 5:31 PM

we use airco here…

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Eva Amsen February 12, 2009 - 5:37 PM

Every time I say it, people make fun of me and say “No, it’s AIR CON!”. Friends, orchestra, coworkers – everyone.
I don’t know why I am talking about cooled indoor air so often, but that’s a whole other issue.

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Richard Wintle March 20, 2009 - 2:23 PM

Now that Eva has separately re-directed my attention to this post, let me clarify a few things from my position of dubious authority on these topics:
1. “Beemer”, not “Beamer” for the automobile. “Bimmer”:http://www.bimmerworld.com is accepted in racing circles.
2. A/C, not “airco” or “aircon”.
3. “Sheets” are actually “overheads”.
4. It’s an LCD Projector. I was recently confused by someone (an American, in fact) asking if we had an “overhead projector” for him to use, causing me to ask him if he was using “overheads” for his talk. We sorted it out eventually.
5. Igepal is properly filed under “NP-40”, and glucose should be filed under “D” for dextrose. Probably.
6. Those rubber things are “Pasteur pipette bulbs”. Note the spelling of “pipette”. We’ll have none of this “Pipet” silliness in Canadia/Canadaland/Canucklington, please.
There. Was that didactic enough for you? 😉

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Frank Norman March 20, 2009 - 4:21 PM

Epidiascope, anyone?

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Richard Wintle March 20, 2009 - 5:32 PM

Frank – I’d forgotten about those!
I’ll see your “opaque projector”, and raise you a Gestetner Machine.

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