Pedology: Study of children or soils?

Question: I’ve heard soil scientists referred to as “pedologists” and the study of soil referred to as “pedology.” What is the origin of these terms? “Ped” makes me think of children (pediatrics) or feet.

This has been a long standing question even within soil science. In 1930, Charles Shaw, a soils professor at the University of California, wrote a paper titled, “Is pedology soil science?” In his paper, Shaw evaluated several English dictionary entries for the word “pedology” and reviewed the roots of the word.


Photo: Mano Strauch © The World Bank

The results were somewhat confusing. He found that according to English dictionaries, “pedo” referred to a foot in Latin, while in Greek the same root referred to a boy or child. The Greek root “pedon” referred to the ground.

In contrast to the English dictionaries, Shaw discovered that Greek lexicons indicated that “pedo” referred to the ground, while “paido” or “paedo” referred to a child. Therefore, the study of children should be “paidology” or “paedology,” not “pedology.”

Also according to Shaw, the first use of the word pedology to refer to the study of soil occurred in 1862, when F. Fallou published a book on the nature of soil under the title “Pedology.” Meanwhile, it did not appear that “pedology” was used in the medical community until the 1920s.

Despite the fact that there is logical reason to view “pedology” as the study of soils given its Greek roots and that soil scientists apparently established precedence in the use of the word, Shaw’s review led him to conclude that the word should be reserved for the medical community and not used to refer to soils.

This was because the medical community had managed by then to firmly establish “pedology” within the English language as a term associated with their discipline, something the soil science community had not accomplished.

Nonetheless, pedology has become well established as a modern term referring to the study of soils, at least within the Earth science and agricultural communities—if not within the general public. Given its Greek roots, it translates as “the study of the ground.”

Reference: Shaw, C.F. 1930. Is pedology soil science? Bulletin of the American Soil Survey Association B11:30-33.

–Answered by Eric Brevik, Dickinson State University

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