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Weasel Words Three

By: , Posted on: July 23, 2021

I’ve been thinking about the structure of the dictionary, and I think some words require special attention, as their meanings are so “contested” (as they say in the humanities).

I’ve written about some of these before, in print and online, so I know that people get pretty upset if their personal definition of them is challenged. The first few words and phrases which come to mind under this heading are:  


Chemical Engineer

Chemical Engineering

Sustainability/Green Engineering

(Process) Design

Someone challenged me to give my definitions of some of the words which have kindly been suggested by LinkedIn members for inclusion, and you can see my views on a few of them by following the links above.

I’ve worked in the Netherlands in the past, a jurisdictions where the title “Engineer” (actually the title “Ingenieur”) is protected, and my definition should be uncontentious, though it seems that protecting the title “Ingenieur” does not prevent people unqualified to call themselves “Ingenieur” calling themselves an “Engineer”, which might be confusing in somewhere as effectively bilingual as the Netherlands is.  

A general criticism of my definitions has been made by those they exclude from engineerhood. They say they are “too narrow” – to which I say “Well they would, wouldn’t they?” Similarly, I meet many people who tell me that they designed something, when to my mind they specified something, bought something, supervised the design of something by others, failed to design something etc…

In the UK, we have the Construction Design and Management Regulations, which require an individual being named to take responsibility as Principal Designer. It is funny that so many of those who tell me they are designing things never sign up for this role. Responsibility is to my mind they key determinant of whether you are the designer. 

Then we have the most weaselish words of all, those which tip over into politics, such as “sustainability”, or “the precautionary principle” These are not scientific concepts, they are political.

I would argue that deep green interpretations of “sustainability” are incompatible with engineering practice. Why? Because engineers are not generally speaking strictly obliged to design process plants which are any safer or “greener” than the laws of the place we build them says we should, and we know that perfection in these areas has an infinite cost.

This is why environmental legislation includes terms like “As Far As Is Reasonably Practical”. Whatever their personal political and ethical views might be, engineers (as I define them) are paid for reason and practicality. Various international Chemical Engineering Institutions offer metrics which allow us to measure sustainability, permitting the rational cost benefit analysis people expect from engineers.

I’m presently thinking that these more contentious entries will need a short appendix each. There are actually fewer of them than I feared, but some of them are surprising. Politicised terms are predictably contentious, but the highly variable formal definitions of flammable/explosive and related terms were a surprise to me.


Books by Sean Moran

Process Plant Layout

An Applied Guide to Water and Effluent Treatment Plant Design

An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design

An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design, 2nd Edition

All titles are available on ScienceDirect. Want your own copy? Enter code STC320 when you order via the Elsevier store to save up to 30%

About the Author

Professor Moran is a chemical engineer, chartered engineer, chartered waste and environment manager with twenty-five years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants. Sean was until 2015 an Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, where he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. He has now returned to engineering practice, specializing in forensic engineering in commercial disputes centering on plant design issues.

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