In my field of research (theoretical physics), titles of publications occasionally begin with "On the ..." (a German language equivalent which was also in use is "Über ... " meaning "About ...".) This seems a bit artificial because in these cases usually also slightly modified phrases can make a title.

Titles beginning with "On the ..." suggest a certain character of the work as being of great relevance or presenting a conclusive result (my notion).

An important historic work with this title is "Περὶ οὐρανοῦ" by Aristotle. It is usually translated as "On the Heavens". There are many other important works in physics that start out like this.

I am wondering if a connection can be made between the modern use of such titles and such historic works. I.e. did scientists start to use such titles inspired by the titles of early works?

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    $\begingroup$ I would have thought it was exactly the other way around. A monograph called "Rings and Fields" is an exhausting treatment. A monograph "On Rings and Fields" talks about rings and fields. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Mar 29 '16 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Well, my notion, as I said. But my notion is also not well described with 'exhausting'. Since there is a number of influential "On ..." works, publishing something like this is feels somehow like an attempt to add yourself to that list. $\endgroup$ – highsciguy Mar 29 '16 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ It seems to me that it has Latin origin; a "standard" title was "De...": De Interpretatione, De senectute, De officiis, De vita solitaria. $\endgroup$ – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 29 '16 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, absolutely. Also Aristoteles work got a latin title that started with "De ..." ... Greek, Latin, German and English language seem to have a variant of this. $\endgroup$ – highsciguy Mar 29 '16 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ "From" is not the only possible meaning of the Latin "de": it also means "about" or "of", as in the famous quotation from Horace "De te fabula narratur". I am not a classical linguist, but I was taught (in Latin and philosophy classes) that this meaning is reflected in such titles as "De interpretatione" and others-- to which I would like to add "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium". $\endgroup$ – Margaret Friedland Mar 29 '16 at 20:43

Yes, it does. Ignoring the differences between Greek Περὶ, Latin De, etc., the tradition of starting titles with a preposition predates Aristotle, e.g. Eudoxus wrote On Speeds, where he described his astronomical system based on homocentric spheres (the one that Aristotle was elaborating in On Heavens). Modern influence, as for many other things, goes through the Renaissance and 17th century authors, e.g. Amico resurrected Eudoxian-Aristotelian system in his 1536 work titled On the Motions of Heavenly Bodies according to Peripatetic Principles without Eccentrics or Epicycles. That Aristarchus titled his only surviving work On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon might also have helped Copernicus to name his opus magnum De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543).

But it was not just Aristotle and Eudoxus who were imitated, but also (and perhaps more) Archimedes and Galen. Archimedes's On Spirals, and On the Sphere and Cylinder were instrumental in the development of differential and integral calculus ideas by Cavalieri and Torricelli, respectively, and On the Equilibrium of Planes and On Floating Bodies were equally instrumental in the development of mechanics by Descartes, Pascal and Newton among others. Two of Newton's early drafts of Principia are titled starting with De (De Motu Corporum in Gyrum and De Motu Corporum in Mediis Regulariter Cedentibus). There is a number of De titles in Galenic corpus as well (including Περί κράσεων translated into Latin as De Temperamentis), which perhaps caught an eye of Renaissance physicians. Fracastoro titled his most famous work De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis (1546), that's the one where he introduced the germ theory of diseases.


It seems that originally it was a descriptive way to refer to an author's text: Somebody in writings about something, that is e.g. Aristotle's book(s) about the heavens is Peri Ouranos ; in Latin it was understood to be an ellipsis: De Entia et essentia is in fact Liber de Entia et essentia. In French the Latin form came naturally, e.g. De la Grammatologie but one also wrote (un livre) sur un sujet that is a book or a text 'on' some topic, or in German uber etwas.

So, the origin is in a practice not in an original. Probably it was during the Renaissance that authors started giving titles to their writings and, further, they came to be respected by people who referred to the text.


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