Editor’s comment: Does etymology matter in engineering?…

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

03 November 2021

NMITE President & CEO, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon
NMITE President & CEO, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon

Regular readers will know that I often talk about the vital role engineers play in addressing the grand challenges facing society – creating, developing & building technologies to solve problems & improve everyday life. And those same readers will also be all too aware of the ongoing STEM skills gap, with industry consistently struggling to recruit sufficient numbers of engineers.

A version of this editorial leader was originally featured in the November 2021 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Meanwhile, parents, students and even teachers – despite many campaigns designed to address this issue – still struggle to understand or appreciate the role, value and opportunity engineering career paths offer. So how do we encourage more young people to study STEM subjects – and ultimately, to become engineers?...

Engineers? No, let’s call them ingeniators” read the headline of a front page story from The Times a few weeks ago (supported by an editorial leader in the paper), after Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, head of a newly launched higher education institution focused on engineering, NMITE, wrote to the paper with her (deliberately provocative) thoughts on the issue.

Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT
Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT

The world desperately needs more engineers to solve the challenges we are facing, Professor Rodriguez-Falcon points out – from climate change, to future pandemics, poverty and hunger – as well as to prevent those we can’t even imagine yet. But despite spending almost 25 years in the UK trying to raise awareness and improve perceptions of engineering – and regardless of the numerous campaigns and initiatives all trying to do the same, the Mexican engineer and academic maintains that engineering still suffers from an awareness and image problem.

So, she contends, the engineering profession must consider rebranding itself, in order to shift the prevailing and pervasive perception (in the UK, at least) that engineers are those who fix our boilers, televisions or washing machines. Vital work, of course, but not that of professional engineers.

NMITE logo
NMITE logo

It’s time for a “war on words”, argues Professor Rodriguez-Falcon, proposing her neologism: let’s go back to the Latin roots of the word for engineer, and use “ingeniator” instead. This, she says, would bring the UK in line with the word used in many other languages and countries(‘ingenieur’ in both German and Dutch, ‘ingénieur’ in French, ‘ingeniero’ in Spanish, ‘ingeniør’ in Norwegian and Danish), where the profession is arguably held in somewhat higher esteem – and crucially, where take up at higher education level is stronger.

Radical, perhaps – but not without linguistic merit. Engineer is derived from the Latin words ingeniare (“to create, generate, contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness”). “Engineering is not about engines, but ingenuity and innovation,” Professor Rodriguez-Falcon reminds us. “We need this country to wake up to what engineers actually do – which is solving problems with their creativity, ingenuity and innovation – so that every child aspires to be one of them.”

Predictably, this has provoked strong responses on both sides. Some welcome such a bold move to change the conversation. Others argue we simply need to protect usage of the existing term. In his column in The Guardian, comedian and writer, David Mitchell acknowledges that the proposal makes sense – but worries that it feels like a silly word (“Perhaps it’s because it’s nearly got the word ‘genie’ in it”). Meanwhile, in a letter to the Editor of The Times, Vice President of Fellowship Engagement for the Royal Academy of Engineering, Catriona Schmolke FREng asserts that changing the name of the profession is not the answer, but simply that we must tell the story of what we do and show how engineers shape the world – which is hard to argue with, but surely what many of the existing STEM campaigns have already attempted to do, arguably with limited success.

EPDT November 2021 cover image
EPDT November 2021 cover image

I can see both sides – but ultimately, the key thing is the vital outcome of raising the awareness, understanding, value and appeal of engineering as a career path. Now, more than ever – the world really does need more engineering heroes!

EPDT's November 2021 issue also contains features on Manufacturing technologies and Automotive applications, plus the latest edition of EPDT's twice-yearly Test & Measurement supplement. Read more on what's inside EPDT this month


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