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Pronounced /ɔːˈɡænɪk/Help with pronunciation

The US Department of Agriculture was in the news last week with reports that it was backtracking on proposals to allow genetically modified crops, or those treated with radiation or fertilised with sewage sludge, to be classed as organic foodstuffs.

The word organic has been applied to crops grown without the aid of chemical fertilisers or pesticides at least since the early 1940s. Though in the developed world it still only produces a tiny proportion of the food we eat, many countries have regulations defining what can be described as organic produce. The word has become so established that it has almost come to mean “natural; unadulturated”, a significant development in its history.

Its source is the Greek organon, which comes from the same root as erg, “work”, and which had the linked meaning of “implement, instrument, tool”, that is, something one works with. It could also refer to a part of the body in the restricted sense of one that’s an instrument to do something with. It’s the name given to Aristotle’s treatise on logic (in the sense of the instrument of all reasoning). The word was used in its Latin form by Francis Bacon in 1620 as the title of his philosophical treatise Novum Organun, “new instrument”, which set out a new set of principles for scientific investigation.

In late Latin and in French organ could mean a wind instrument, perhaps because the larynx, being the source of human speech, had a special status as one of the functional parts of the body. For example, where in the King James bible of 1611, Psalm 150 says “Praise him with stringed instruments and organs”, organ meant a wind instrument. But by the 1660s it had come to mean particularly the wind-driven instrument made of a complex set of pipes which is what we now understand by the word organ.

From its application in Greek to any of the specialised functional parts of living things, our word organism was coined for the whole body, seen as an assemblage of organs (a closely-related word is organisation, originally “the condition of being ordered as a living being”). In the eighteenth century this led to the adjective organic, “of or pertaining to the bodily organs”. Later in the century, this evolved to mean anything that had organs, hence any living thing, and began to be contrasted with inorganic.

So organic chemistry referred originally and literally to the chemistry of substances that derived from living things, which at one time were thought to possess some vital spark that made it impossible to duplicate them outside the body. But the synthesis of urea in 1828 from an inorganic material finally put paid to that idea. So the term came to be applied to the chemistry of carbon compounds in general, all living things being based on it, though these days only a few of the substances manipulated by organic chemists have their source in the natural world and the word has for them lost much of its direct association with it.

So, when farmers began to describe a system in which only fertilisers and pesticides derived from living things were employed, it was unsurprising that they used the word organic to describe it. Concern over the environmental impact of synthetic equivalents such as DDT and the organophosphorus compounds has given the word overtones of healthful eating and natural goodness.

Organ has had other senses to do with instrumentality. Many years ago, I had reason, what exactly I can’t now remember, to consult the first ever issue of the Radio Times, which to my surprise was blazoned across its masthead “The official organ of the BBC”. This caused a momentary confusion until I realised the word also had the sense of “a method of communication or of expression of opinion”, a use which is now moribund.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 14 Mar 1998