Two drops of ink Dr. Chandrsekhara Narayana Pillai

The Meaning of Words: Is the Term Organic Chemicals an Oxymoron?

Editor’s Note:

In his essay, Dr. Pillai argues about the semantics of the word “organic.” It is a popular word that we all see on a daily basis. In my own life, this word is something my wife and I value greatly; however, Dr. Pillai brings some interesting thoughts to this game of semantics through the lens of chemistry. Enjoy.

“When I use a word,” Humpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty, “Who is to be the master – that is all.”

(Through the Looking- Glass – Alice in Wonderland)

Dr. Chandrsekhara Narayana Pillai


I, like most other people, am a slave of words, not master. I have been trained as an Organic Chemist and have spent my professional life teaching and doing research in this field. The word “organic” has been troubling me a lot in recent days. Historically, chemistry has been classified into different subdivisions. Two of these are organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry, dealing with the study of organic chemicals and inorganic chemicals, respectively. The word “organic,” in this context, has a hoary history.

The early scientists who studied “chemicals” (another word which I shall come around to, soon) found that the materials that they handled belonged to two groups with distinctly different characteristics. One group, mainly of animal or vegetable in origin (like vinegar and sugar), was called organic, implying their origin from living organisms and claiming that a “vital force” is needed for producing them. All other materials like minerals, metals, and salts were called inorganic. This classification did not stand the test of time because it was shown repeatedly that a member of one group could be converted to a known member of the other group in the laboratory. However, the classification is still retained with suitable modifications.

Today, when the word organic is used as an adjective, the common man understands it to mean that the product has been produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, preservatives additives etc. When I hear expressions such as organic vegetables, milk, sugar or grain, my immediate reaction is to ask, are there inorganic vegetables and all the others? If I do that, declaring my support for Alice, my interlocutor may take refuge behind Humpty’s dictum. I still hold that following Humpty will lead to linguistic anarchy.

Now, let me come to chemical(s), (noun). As a student of chemistry, I have been taught that all matter on earth is composed of chemicals as mixtures, compounds, and elements, regardless of whether they are in the solid, liquid, or gaseous state. Wood and rocks and seawater and air are mixtures of chemicals. Plants and animals, like everything on earth, are made up of chemicals. So is our body. But for the common man, excluding a minuscule number of academically minded chemistry students, chemical (n) is a dirty word. Manufacturers of consumer goods like food items, and cosmetics, take special care to label their products as “Chemicals free.” I cannot think of a more deceptive claim. If the label said, “Free of harmful chemicals,” I could accept it, conditionally.

Chemistry Dr. Chandrsekhara Narayana Pillai

For most people, chemicals are bad if they are manmade in a laboratory or in a factory. If they are isolated from a vegetable or animal source they are acceptable—provided they are certified to be nontoxic. Many chemicals are identified on the basis of their source or a specific property. Let me take the example of the chemical, cholesterol, an evil thing in the minds of most people. People try to stay away from this vile stuff as much as possible. Actually, cholesterol is an innocuous chemical widely distributed in nature and present in many food materials as well as in our body. But when the label on a vegetable oil container says that the product is “100% free of cholesterol,” the manufacturers are not trying to deceive the consumer by implying that other oils contain cholesterol. What they are indirectly claiming is that consumption of their oil will not lead to coronary heart disease—whose cause is believed to be cholesterol. In this context, the word cholesterol on the label does not mean the chemical of that name, but a property attributed to it.

Organic food fanatics insist that their vegetables and other food items should have been grown or processed without the use of chemical fertilizers, feeds, chemical drugs, or pesticides. What is not appreciated is that many food additives and flavoring agents like vanillin, citric acid, and acetic acid (vinegar) are natural products but are, in actual practice, chemicals made in the laboratory and in factories. This is also true of most other products that we use every day, like medicines, some of them labeled herbal. Watchdogs of organic, health foods and other products will have a tough time separating those which are acceptable from those which are bad, using the above criteria. According to the currently prevailing thesis, while organic is a qualification which all consumer goods should aspire for, preferably certified by an accredited agency, chemicals are en bloc bad if present in such products. My favorite field of study, organic chemicals, in an oxymoron. Or is it?

Authors’ Bio:

two drops of ink the meaning of words: is the term organic chemicals an oxymoron

C.N.PILLAI (Full Name: Chandrsekhara Narayana Pillai)

After Post Graduation in Chemistry from The University of Kerala, Trivandrum, India, I left for the USA in 1954 for higher studies.  Took a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1960 from Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, returned to India in 1960 and joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai (Madras), India, as a faculty member. Retired as professor of chemistry in 1994. I have published more than 100 research papers, guided 22 students towards the Ph.D. degree and have published a Textbook of Organic Chemistry. Now I spent my time reading and writing articles on general topics.

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  1. I’m with Marilyn on this one. I feared science in my youth because science was my worst subject. But today my motto is, “I love chemicals. Where would we be without them.” Interesting read.

  2. As a chemist (B.Sc.), I thoroughly enjoyed this. The use of the term “organic” is played very fast and loose. Most people have no idea what it means. And the food companies take advantage of that.

    Marilyn – don’t be afraid of science. It’s a part of our everyday lives.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this. As someone who is afraid of science, but value words, I decided to face my fears and read it. So glad I did. I appreciate your use of words, and in the meantime, I learned some chemistry.

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