One of these things is not like the others.
And does it matter?
A lot of people confuse the terms naturist and naturalist.
Of course, most naturists are acutely aware of the difference and many will pedantically point out the difference to those using the incorrect term. I am frequently one of those pedants. It is a habit that I picked up from my mother, who was a school teacher and used to frequently correct my grammar when I was growing up. Even now, in my mid-late 50s, my mother has been known to pick up on occasional errors that I still make.
It often surprises me how many people use the word naturalist to describe people who like to spend time naked. I am not sure if the famous naturalist, David Attenborough is also a naturist and enjoys time without clothing. He may be, but if he is it is not something that he shares publicly. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive and some naturalists may also be naturists.
One might excuse the confusion as both words sound similar, and many people probably have little reason to even consider the difference. Perhaps similar to those who confuse stationary and stationery or astronomy and astrology.
What I find harder to forgive is when the error is made by people whose profession is the use of language and words, specifically writers and editors in the media or those responsible for the education of others.
The following is an extract from the Creating My Cambridge website, a resource for schools and museums:
Charles Darwin was a scientist who studied in Cambridge. He was supposed to train as a vicar, but he found beetle collecting much more interesting, and became a scientist instead after being invited on an exciting voyage on HMS Beagle as a naturist.
Now it is possible that in the 1830’s it was common to hire naturists for long journeys at sea, but it is not something that I had heard of before and I can’t imagine any reason that this would have been the case. It is also possible that this is a deliberate mistake by academics with a sense of humour looking to add a subversive element to the education of our children. What is more likely is an example of Hanlon’s razor.
In philosophy, a razor is a principle that allows one to eliminate unlikely explanations.
Hanlon’s razor says:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by ignorance.
In other words, consider a cockup before a conspiracy.
Hanlon’s razor is the lesser-known relative of Occam’s razor which states:
Explanations that require fewer unjustified assumptions are more likely to be correct.
In other words, the simplest explanation is probably the right one.
With regard to the Cambridge article calling Darwin a naturist rather than a naturalist, and using both Occam’s and Hanlon’s razors, the most likely explanation for the error is that the authors and editors were simply unaware of the difference between the meanings of the two words. It is likely to have been their ignorance that led to the error rather than any deliberate attempt to confuse or falsely attribute the practice of social nudity to the eminent scientist.
In another example, I recently read an online travel article that talked of the confusion an Australian traveller had while couch surfing in France. He had arrived too late to check into hostels and turned to a couch-surfing website. According to the article, he was surprised to see that his host was a naturalist.
I know what the article was trying to achieve in a sensationalist way, but the idea of a stranded backpacker arriving at the home of a natural history or biology expert doesn’t quite carry the same drama in the mind of most of the public as the door being answered by a naked guy wrapped in a rainbow sarong.
The error managed to get past both the author of the article and the editor of the website that published the item.
I emailed the website asking them to clarify if the host was a naturalist or a naturist as the tone of the article suggested, and to be fair to them, they have corrected the error.
In another example, an old article in the New Zealand Herald talked about a couple who set up a website listing accommodation for naked people. The caption accompanying a photo had both words in the same sentence.
NaturistBnB was founded by a naturalist couple who tried to host a nude Airbnb.
When everyday people make the mistake of calling naturists naturalists, it is an understandable and forgivable error, that often provides an opportunity for a conversation around the naturist philosophy and lifestyle.
When professional journalists make the same error it highlights an ignorance and lack of understanding which undermines the integrity of their reporting.
Naturalist or naturist? Does it matter? Ask an astronomer to work out your horoscope and see what kind of reaction you get.
Thank you for reading. Have a comfortable day.
A bad day fishing beats a good day at work.
Creating My Cambridge:
Escape. I stayed with a nudist in Paris.