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The Higgs boson: now considered real

From a dictionary editor’s point of view, perhaps the main immediate outcome of the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson is the need to rework some definitions. Following the lead of physicists, the current Oxford Dictionaries Online definition doesn’t state definitively whether or not the particle actually exists:

a subatomic particle whose existence is predicted by the theory which unified the weak and electromagnetic interactions.

As physicists get used to speaking of it as something real rather than something simply postulated, the definition will need to change to reflect this altered usage.

If the Higgs had never been found, this may have grounds to remove it from the standard model of particle physics, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been sufficient reason to remove it from the dictionary. Instead, it could have joined the ether, phlogiston, and spontaneous generation as scientific theories that were once widely believed but that didn’t stand up to experimental scrutiny.

The ‘God particle’

Lexicographically speaking, another interesting feature of the Higgs boson is its other name, the ‘God particle ’. This name is widely used in the media to describe the particle, but scientists themselves tend to be less keen: although the Higgs boson is significant, it’s probably not that significant, and many physicists might balk at the invocation of a deity in relation to their subject.

It’s perhaps surprising then that ‘God particle’ was coined by a physicist, Leon Lederman, in the title of a 1993 book. However, despite the portentous nature of the name, the OED entry for ‘God particle’, shows that Lederman may not have been altogether serious when he devised it:

2006 L. M. Lederman God Particle (new ed.) Pref. p. xi, As for the title, The God Particle, my coauthor, Dick Teresi, has agreed to accept the blame… I mentioned the phrase as a joke once in a speech, and he remembered it and used it as the working title of the book. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘no publisher ever uses the working title on the final book.’

2006   L. M. Lederman & D. Teresi God Particle i. 22   Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one.

Following today’s announcement, perhaps not many physicists would call it the ‘Goddamn particle’ any more.

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