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Naming Nootkatone

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’ve always enjoyed the citrusy, dark, mellow-but-tangy notes emanating from a freshly-cut grapefruit. Some of that flavor comes from (+)-nootkatone, a terpene fragrance that, as a recent Nature News article points out, will be one of the first fine chemicals produced using the relatively new technique of synthetic biology. Economic and cultural issues still swirl around this development, but I have a much simpler question:

How do you say nootkatone?

Easy to draw, tough to say

Hear me out – I’ve searched video clips, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) WebBook, collections of “funny-named” molecules, the Merck Index, and even consulted the IPA charts. The etymology’s confusing – to me, at first blush it appears to be a Greek root, like nootropics (neuroenhancers), which one pronounces “NOH-uh-tropics.”

But “Nootka” isn’t derived from Greek. For this molecule, we rely upon an Anglicization of a native tongue: in this case, the Nuu-chah-nulth people of modern-day coastal Canada. The phoneme crops up again in Nootka Sound and Nootka Island, both in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the scientific name for the yellow cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, which this UConn horticultural site pronounces “noo-kah-TEN-sis.”

2011 NPR story on alternative mosquito repellents has reporter Richard Knox proclaiming the benefits of “NOOT-kah-tone,” while a brief survey of YouTube vacation videos and fishing trips to “NUT-ka” Island confuse the issue further. For such a useful and widely-produced molecule, there must be a definitive way to pronounce the name.

noo-kah-TONE? (like the plant)

NOOT-kah-tone? (NPR)

NOH-uh-kah-tone? (like Greek)

NUT-kah-tone? (like YouTube)

Help me out: Who knows the right way to name nootkatone?

See Arr Oh About the Author: Workaday synthetic chemist interested in everything. Find See Arr Oh at http://justlikecooking.blogspot.com Follow on Twitter @seearroh.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. Spironis 5:48 pm 01/29/2014

    Blame Canada. As with Quebecois, it sounds exactly the way it is pronounced. Take whack at bullvalene, twistane, arsole, miazole and urazole…and 1,4-diazabicyclo[2.2.2]octane that smells like peanut butter.

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