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In this Nature League Field Trip, Brit discovers biodiversity in downtown Missoula and discusses its uses and values.

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Welcome to this month’s Wild Word!

Once a month on Nature League we’ll look at the etymology, or origin and history, of words related to nature. This month’s theme is biodiversity, so we’re going to examine a word that is used throughout the material in this topic.

The word is “organism”. This is a pretty common word, and we certainly use its pieces, organ and ism, in many different. English words.

But let’s dig in deeper and check out these parts. The ending, ism, is a common one. “Ism” can be traced back to both Latin and Greek, as “-isma” and “-ismos” respectively. This ending was added to words to signify a practice or teaching of something.

So what is the word “organism” hinting at practicing? Let’s look at the first piece of the word, which is “organ”. This one is interesting, because over the course of history the word “organ” started being used in two different ways.

The word “organum” in Latin translates to instrument, like a mechanical device, but also translates to organ, like the musical organ pipe. But the plot thickens! There is also a verb in Latin, “organizo”, which means “to organize”.

The word organism most likely comes from a combination of the noun form, meaning instrument, and the verb form, meaning organize. So while the formal Merriam Webster definition of “organism” is “a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole”, organism literally means “the practice of organizing or being a device”. I love the connotation of this word.

It means that when people long ago were considering life on Earth and calling all of the forms they encountered “organisms”, these people were recognizing that the life forms not only had a purpose, but were highly organized. And this was all before we even knew about the molecular structure of things! And that, is pretty awesome.