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Like many other fields, science has its own style of communication full of specific jargon and guided by unwritten rules.  Most of the posts on this blog focus on breaching this barrier to the public’s understanding and appreciation of science.  In this series, I’d like to take another approach by highlighting scientific words which have escaped the confines of jargon to reach a broader appeal because of their sound or their evocative power as metaphors.  Today’s word is variegated. [Previous words of science were petrichoralluvium, nychthemeron, crepuscular, interstitial, and science.]

Variegated (the first syllable rhymes with air and the rest with irrigated) is an extremely useful word, and it’s only recently occurred to me that many people might not know it, since I learned it in a botanical context. It’s used to describe something that has several colours, especially in streaks or patches. For example, the leaves of a many plants (such as Dieffenbachia) are variegated; Dieffenbachia leaves (Photo credit: Jerzy Opioła via Wikipedia)that’s where I learned the word. Animals’ coats or plumage can also be variegated, and it shows up in many common species names (there’s a Variegated Mountain Lizard, Flycatcher, Squirrel, and Fairywren, amongst others). There’s even a related verb, to ‘variegate’, meaning “to diversify; to invest with variety”.

Although colour is at the heart of variegation (it comes from the Latin verb variegare, meaning “to make varied or of diverse colours”), it’s far too handy a word not to have found other uses. The first quotation in the OED is, in keeping with my own experience, botanical, but it also comfortably fits a more general usage as a description of variation:

“The skil in making Tulips…variegated, with stripes of divers colours.”

Thomas Fuller
The History of the Worthies of England, 1661
(via the Oxford English Dictionary)

“A variegated flowing robe of silk.”

Edward Gibbon
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1781
(via the Oxford English Dictionary)

“No plays have oftener filled the eye with tears…than those which are variegated with interludes of mirth.”

Samuel Johnson
The Rambler, 1751
(via the Oxford English Dictionary)

“The tract of country…is happily variegated with plains and mountains, hills and vallies.”

Jedidiah Morse
The American Universal Geography, 1796
(via the Oxford English Dictionary)

Maybe I’m quirky for being so fond of the word, or maybe it’s a symptom of my logophilia, but I think it’s great that English is equipped with a word for that kind of splotchy, dappled, patterning, and I hope we’ll all use it more often!

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