If you have a weight problem and you think it’s not entirely your fault, there might be something to that belief. Researchers have identified a number of substances that might act on organisms, including humans, in ways that cause them to gain weight above and beyond what would be “normal” for their biology. This idea has critics, but it’s supporters cite a growing body of evidence in favor of it. And they’ve got a label for any substance that acts biologically to cause an animal to gain weight: obesogen.
The term obesogen is gaining acceptance in specialized circles (and has occasionally made its way into more accessible venues), but it’s still very new. All sources seem to agree that it was first used in a 2006 article in the journal Endocrinology by Felix Grün and Bruce Blumberg. Their contention was that some chemicals not natural to the body, specifically certain persistent organic pollutants, can inappropriately act on receptors at the cellular level. This can in turn trigger reactions that interfere with normal metabolism, and those changes ultimately promote obesity. The authors were careful to note that the mechanisms leading to obesity are complex and that further research into the existence of obesogens (or obesogenic compounds) is needed, but they made a good case.
The idea of an obesogen had been around for some years before 2006, but Grün and Blumberg seem to be the first to put a name to it in print. Some sources on the web imply that others should get some credit for this term—and, in fact, uses of “obesogenic” as an adjective have been found as far back as 1983 (Merriam-Webster asserts 1970, but provides no citation). It’s interesting (but not unprecedented) that usage allowed for the description of a process more than two decades before it advanced to applying a generic noun to specific (and hypothesized) compounds. As has often been pointed out in other contexts, “you can’t patent an idea.” Grün and Blumberg took the extra step and deserve credit, until and unless an earlier citation turns up. (As an aside, Blumberg noted in a recent article that they didn’t set out to discover obesogens; they were researching something else, but the concept explained an effect they were seeing.)
Obesogen is still new enough that not everyone has encountered the term and some use it cautiously. Even last year, a publication as up-to-date as Science News still put the word in quotation marks to denote novelty. In 2018, the word has suddenly seen a lot more use and has made it’s way into the public eye. There’s less controversy today over the idea that obesogens exist and act as theorized, but there’s more over the suggestion that the effect of obesogens might be passed from parents to their offspring. This enters the world of epigenetics, which is beyond the coverage this simple post can offer.
The construction of the word obesogen is straightforward. It has two parts, obese and gen, “fat” and “making.” Obese (and obesity) entered the English language in the early 17th century, from Latin through French. It strikes me as slightly unusual in that it’s a word that has become more technical in recent decades—many words drift in the other direction, starting out as specialized terms and becoming less precise over time.
Gen is ultimately from a Greek root (the same as in genesis, homogeneous, and oxygen). The literal meaning is closer to “to be born” or “to become,” but modern usage shifts that slightly to “causing” or “giving birth to.” It was first used in the context of chemistry in the late 1700s and has since spread to many scientific fields.
You’re probably familiar with at least a few other words that use a similar -gen form (often as -ogen or -agen) . A carcinogen (1853) is a substance that causes cancer. A mutagen (1946) is something that causes mutations. A pathogen (1880) causes disease. Those readily come to mind, and there are many others. I’ve included the dates for first known use for each of these to show that there’s no clear pattern to which form comes first, the noun or the adjective: carcinogenic (1916), mutagenic (1946), pathogenic (1850). Counting obesogen (2006) / obesogenic (1983), two of these pairs evolved in one direction, one in the other, and one pair arrived together.
One of the characteristics that marks a language as a “living language” is that its users continually create new words. English has no trouble qualifying by that criteria: the Oxford English Dictionary adds well over 1,000 words to its catalog every year, while some sources have estimated that more than 5,000 new words are created annually. A great, short article on how new words come into existence can be found here.
As long as English is alive, we’ll keep seeing the creation of new words like obesogen…and I’ll always have something to blog about!
= = = = =
Great minds think alike…?
“Obesogen” came to my attention through the September, 2017, Science News article linked above.* I had picked it out as the topic for this month’s post some weeks back, and as I was finalizing this draft noticed that The Guardian beat me to the punch: they named it their word of the week only a few days ago. I hope you find my post on the word more informative than their superficial take.
*…Or so I thought. The super, super careful regular reader of this blog will note that more than five years ago I mentioned obesogenic in the 2012 WOTY summary post (February, 2013). But it went in one ear and out the other at the time and I was only reminded of that post when it came up as related to this one while selecting tags.