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Words new to me: белковина

June 2, 2014

Interesting words are sparse in Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863), but I learned a bit about the history of science looking up белковина ‘albumin.’

Белковина is an obsolete equivalent of белок ‘egg white, white (of an eye), protein’; it is also synonymous with the Russian альбумин, a cognate of albumin and albumen. The OED tells me that albumen means primarily egg-white and secondarily soluble protein (plus some other meanings), while albumin means primarily soluble protein and secondarily egg-white. Protein, meanwhile, comes from the French protéine, which is based on a Byzantine Greek root meaning “of the first quality” and is “so called on account of its being a primary substance or fundamental material of the bodies of animals and plants.” The other words — albumin or -en, альбумин, белок, белковина — derive from Latin or Slavic words for “white.”

More from the OED on protein:

Originally: †a complex, nitrogenous, organic substance obtained from casein, fibrin, and egg albumen, taken to be a distinct compound and regarded as the basic component of a large group of substances essential to living organisms (obs.). Later: any of this group of substances, which occur in all living organisms, esp. as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, collagen, keratin, etc., and as functional components such as enzymes and antibodies. Also as a mass noun: such compounds collectively, esp. as a component of the diet; food consisting chiefly of proteins, as meat, fish, soya beans, etc.

From S. A. Reiser’s notes to What Is to Be Done? (the 1975 Nauka edition):

Lopukhov’s words reflect the numerous and persistent attempts by scientists, beginning in the eighteenth century, to find a method of artificially synthesizing protein [белок] (in the terminology of the time, белковина). In the 1850s and 1860s several initially unsuccessful attempts were made to penetrate the mysteries of its structure. Scientists were, however, correct to surmise that protein was the foundation of the biological development of matter (F. Engels wrote about this in 1876; see Anti-Dühring, Moscow, 1966, p. 78). The first blow against vitalist immanence was struck in 1828 when F. Wöhler artificially synthesized urea [мочевина]. Subsequent stages in the collapse of vitalism occurred when P. E. Berthelot artificially synthesized fats in 1854 and A. M. Butlerov artificially synthesized carbohydrates in 1861. Chernyshevskii probably knew about all these experiments. Proteins were synthesized only in the mid-twentieth century. Albumins or proteins [протеины], organic compounds of high molecular weight, play an important part in the structure and life of organisms and are one of the most important sources of nourishment: the possibility of producing them artificially held the promise of making food products significantly more abundant and less expensive, which was of colossal importance to the poorer segment of the population. This in particular explains the revolutionary democrats’ interest, and that of scientists close to them, in the aforementioned problem. (links added)

If I’m getting the biology right, proteins are now taken to be a large class of compounds important for life, but in the mid-nineteenth century it was thought that one particular chemical found in egg-whites was a building block of all life, and this is the connection between the idea of “(egg-)white” (albumin, albumen) and the idea of “fundamental thing” (protein).

In chapter 3, section 22, “A Theoretical Conversation,” Lopukhov goes to see Kirsanov and starts an oblique conversation about the emerging love triangle involving the two of them and Vera Pavlovna. Kirsanov is annoyed and doesn’t want to talk about it. Lopukhov ostentatiously changes the subject to science, which also annoys Kirsanov, and recent experiments purporting to synthesize protein are what he seizes on as a good scientific topic. Here’s Tucker’s 1886 translation of the passage:

“[…] What do you think of these strange experiments in the artificial production of albumen?”

Lopoukhoff drew another chair up to his own to put his feet on it, seated himself comfortably, lighted his cigar, and continued his remarks:

“In my opinion it is a great discovery, if it be not contradicted. Have you reproduced the experiments?”

“No, but I must do so.”

“How fortunate you are in having a good laboratory at your disposition! Reproduce them, reproduce them, I beg of you, but with great care. It is a complete revolution in the entire alimentary economy, in the whole life of humanity,—the manufacture of the prinicipal nutritive substance directly from inorganic matter. That is an extremely important discovery, equal to Newton’s. Do you not think so?”

“Certainly. Only I very much doubt the accuracy of the experiments. Sooner or later we shall reach that point, indisputably; science clearly tends in that direction. But now it is scarcely probable that we have already got there.”

“That is your opinion? Well, it is mine, too. So our conversation is over. […]”

I think in Oryx and Crake (2003), science is still clearly tending in that direction. Though to be fair, I guess there has been a revolution or two in the world alimentary economy since Chernyshevskii.

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