Origin of the word
In terms of the meaning of a substance that ‘speeds up a chemical reaction but itself remains unchanged’ (2), catalyst was in use in English in 1902, and seems to have been formed by analogy with ‘analyst’: so just as analyst was derived from analyse and analysis, catalyst was derived from catalyse and catalysis.
By 1943, catalyst had moved beyond its original narrow meaning in relation to chemistry, and come into more general, metaphorical use (1).
The adjective form of catalyst is catalytic. The Greek root of catalytic was in the combination of ‘kata’, meaning ‘down’ and ‘lyein’ meaning ‘loosen’. This merging resulted in ‘katalyein’ meaning ‘to dissolve’ and eventually ‘katalytikos’, ‘able to dissolve.’ The Latinized form of the Greek ‘katalytikos’ was recorded in 1836.
Related words: catalysis, catalyse, catalytic, catalytically.
“The vice chief of the Australian defence force, vice admiral Raymond Griggs, said last year’s evidence had acted as ‘a very important catalyst for change’” Guardian. 6th March 2017: Christopher Knaus. Abuse revelations in Australia’s military cadets were a “catalyst for change.” (1)
“Just as Cinderella turned from a poor teenager into a magnificent princess with the aid of a little magic, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have transformed a common metal into a useful catalyst for a wide class of reactions, a role formerly reserved for expensive precious metals.” Science Daily. 26th May 2017: Scientists make vanadium into a useful catalyst for hydrogenation. (2)
“On this day in 1895: the catalysis for Oscar Wilde’s demise is triggered.” Telegraph. 3rd April 2017: Dominic Selwood. Article. (1)
1. someone or something that causes something to happen or change
2. a substance that causes a chemical reaction to happen more quickly but is not affected itself. An enzyme is a type of catalyst.