Anthropologist Michael O'Brien of the University of Missouri says understanding how word usage affects public acceptance of science could lead to better science communication and a more informed public.
"Scientists can learn from this study that the general public shouldn't be expected to understand technical terms or be convinced by journal papers written in technical jargon," he said in a university release Tuesday.
"Journalists must explain scientific terms in ways people can understand and thereby ease the movement of those terms into general speech."
O'Brien and his colleagues studied word usage in popular literature to document how the usage of certain words related to climate change has risen and fallen over a period of time.
"That can be a slow process," O'Brien said. "Several words related to climate change diffused into the popular vocabulary over a 30-50 year timeline."
By 2008, several important terms in the discussion of climate change had entered popular literature from technical obscurity, he said, including biodiversity -- the degree of variation in life forms within a given area -- and paleoclimate, prehistoric climate trends often deduced from ice cores, tree rings and pollen trapped in sediments.
Not every term is adopted at the same rate or achieves the same degree of popularity, O'Brien said.
He pointed to the terms holocene -- the current era of the Earth's history, which started at the end of the last ice age, and phenology -- the study of how climate and other environmental factors influence the timing of events in organisms' life cycle -- as climate terms still relatively uncommon in mainstream discussion of climate change.
"The adoption of words into the popular vocabulary is like the evolution of species," he said. "A complex process governs why certain terms are successful and adopted into everyday speech, while others fail."