It's All Greek To Me

January 30, 2019
Teaching & LearningSarah Wegwerth

After spelling, the subject I struggled with most in school was foreign languages. Additionally, I’m not a huge fan of memorization. You might be thinking, why did you go into organic chemistry then??? Believe me when I say, you can reason your way through organic chemistry! If that were not the case I would have chosen a different field of science.

I sympathize with students new to organic chemistry, learning organic chemistry is like learning a new language and you will need to memorize some definitions. It will be hard at first, but immerse yourself in the language and practice using the words. When you go to office hours use your chemistry language. When you are studying with your friends don’t just point to structures, use your organic chemistry words. Just like it is most efficient to learn a foreign language by attending courses that are taught entirely in that language, you will more quickly get comfortable with the language of organic chemistry if you keep using those words. If instead however, you avoid the terminology, it will become a barrier to understanding what your instructor is covering in class.

In the app Mechanisms we want to support your efforts to learn the language of organic chemistry. Coming soon, we will be adding a video glossary. (To nominate the terms you wish to be included in this glossary, go to this link. ) Also, the hints and goals are written using key vocabulary words to immerse you in the terminology. If you do not know the definition of one of the words look it up! All textbooks have a glossary at the back of the book. This is actually a good practice for all of your classes.

For this blog post though I want to highlight two words that you need to be comfortable with as soon as you start learning mechanisms:

Nucleophile and Electrophile

Here’s the best part: If you memorize the definition of the suffix -phile, you can figure out the meaning for each of these words. The suffix is derived from the Greek word philos which means love. The prefix for each words, nucleo- and electro-, are easily recognizable, nucleus and electron respectively. Therefore the simplest definition for each of these words is:

Nucleophile - Nucleus lover

Electrophile - Electron lover

Still to this day, when I hear the word nucleophile I use the imagery of a molecule that is seeking a nucleus, or positive charge and therefore the nucleophile must be the electron rich species. Likewise, with electrophile I picture an electron-poor species searching for electrons. While some may argue it is not correct to anthropomorphize (a big fancy word that just means give human attributes to objects) molecules, just go ahead and use it to help remember definitions.


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