How Intestines Gurgle in Greek
Not all Greek medical terms have been adopted for use nowadays. One of the very many that regrettably did not make it is borborygmos (βορβορυγμός), a splendid compound of borbor-, “mud,” and -ygmos, a suffix denoting a sound, but never found as an independent word. In medical texts, borborygmos denotes intestinal rumbling, presumably evoking specifically the sound of squelching through mud. Elsewhere, however, it means “belching,” specifically the sound used as a signal to female camels that they should lie down.
The Greek word for “doctor," iatros (as in "pediatric," "geriatric," etc.), was thought to be derived from ios (“arrow”): “Medicine was so called in the old days from the extraction of arrows” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Astrologers 1.45); in fact, the word comes from the Greek verb iaomai, "to heal." Archiatros (“doctor in chief”) is the origin of Arzt, the German word for “doctor.” The Latin words for “doctor” and “medicine,” medicus and medicina, were thought to be related to medius (“in the middle”), the idea being that medicine ensured good health by achieving a balance between extremes. Doctor in Latin means “teacher” and did not originally have any specific reference to medicine. "Physician" is derived from the Greek word physica (“things in nature”), a plural form preserved in the English word “physics.”
A Touch of Discomfort
Considering the grim reality to which it refers, “disease” is a very gentle word; a "lack of ease" seems not so very bad. There is perhaps a similar understatement, almost a euphemism, in the explanation given for nosos (Grk. for "disease") found in an ancient medical document (Anonymous London Medical Papyrus 3.21): “A disease (nosos) is so called because it settles in the body like a baby bird (neossos) in its nest.” Such quaint imagery flies in the face (as it were) of the grave circumstances faced by those who actually suffered from a nosos, the most famous example of which is the plague that devastated Athens in 430 BC, described in more appropriately horrific terms by the historian Thucydides.
The six naturally occurring noble gases are argon, helium, krypton, neon, radon, and xenon. Much of the credit for the discovery of all of them except radon should go to Sir William Ramsey, Nobel Prize laureate in 1904, but he and his fellow researchers might have spent a little longer in choosing names. "Helium" is a good descriptive name, for the gas was first named after its detection during an eclipse of the sun (Grk. helios) a generation earlier. "Argon" (Grk. for “lazy thing”) is at least accurate, since argon is an inert gas, but so are helium, krypton, neon, and xenon. "Krypton," "neon," and "xenon" are as uninformative as the names of any discoveries could be, since they are the Greek words for, respectively, “hidden thing,” “new thing,” and “strange thing.” Radon was discovered in 1918, two years after Ramsey’s death, and its name is an instructive abbreviation of “radium emanation.”
A Doctor by Any Other Name
How would you respond to the news that your eye was to be surgically repaired by a Dr. Gouger? Would you take dermatological advice from someone named Dr. Boyle? Would you receive anesthetics from Dr. Payne? Such names may be ominous, but fortunately some ancient doctors had appellations that were more promising. The name Galen is close to the Greek word for “calm,” which perhaps reassured patients (never mind that it is also close to the Greek word for “weasel”). The doctor Serenus enjoyed a similar privilege, as his name is Latin for “tranquil.” Patients of the famous eye doctor Euelpides may also have expected a positive outcome when they visited Dr. “Goodhope.” Indeed, the healing god Asclepius himself was said to have gotten his name from his “gentle” (Grk. epios) treatments, and his wife’s name, Epione, was another testament to his kindly ways. Not all names were so happy, however: Archagathus, reported to be the first Greek doctor to come to Rome (219 BC), did very well at first, staying true to the meaning of his name, “good beginning.” But according to Pliny the Elder (Natural History 29.12), it was only his beginning that was good: “At first he was wonderfully popular, but then his cruel cutting and cautery won him the nickname ‘The Executioner,’ and people began to detest the medical arts and all doctors.”
The Latin word munus means “duty” or “obligation.” In ancient Roman politics this term could denote service to the state as a public official, and it could also refer to taxes or other forms of tribute paid to a ruling power. Those who were exempt from such demands were labeled with the adjective immunis, “not subject to the munus.” Already in antiquity the term immunitas could refer to exemption in general, and in later centuries it could refer to freedom from service in church or state. By at least the 17th century the English word “immunity” was being used in health contexts to refer to resistance to noxious substances or diseases.
They Who Shall Remain Nameless
There is no limit to the vocabulary words that can be created using Latin and Greek elements, a fact that you experience firsthand when you attempt the Wordsmith exercises in the textbook. A rich panoply of prefixes, bases, and suffixes presents itself to anyone wishing to conjure up a new name for a creature, disease, body part, etc. Not all scientific names meet the same criteria of accuracy or helpfulness, but the opportunities for creativity are endless. It is altogether quite mind-boggling, therefore, that several parts of the human anatomy should have gotten this far with so worthless—and, to be honest, so boring—a title as “the nameless one,” and yet this is the meaning of “innominate” (Lat. innominatus), a label given to a handful of body parts. The brachiocephalic artery (or brachiocephalic trunk) is the first branch of the arch of the aorta; the term “brachiocephalic” is appropriate for an artery that supplies the right side of the head, neck, and upper limb, but its other name, “the unnamed artery,” is not. What would you call the hip bone, which comprises the ilium, ischium, and pubis? Probably not os innominatum, Latin for “the unnamed bone.” You might also reasonably wonder how the title “innominate cartilage” is going to help you remember anything about the cartilage forming the lower and back part of the larynx. Perhaps worst of all is substantia innominata ("unnamed substance"); you would struggle to come up with a less specific name for this layer of nerve tissue located beneath the thalamus.
The Greek term diabetes originally meant “siphon” and was derived from the verb diabainein, “to pass through.” In antiquity the term was applied to the disease we know as diabetes because of the excessive discharge of urine that it involved. The fuller name diabetes mellitus is a bilingual phrase (see Chapter XXV): the Latin adjective mellitus (“sweetened,” related to the noun mel, “honey”) was added in the 17th century because the urine of patients with diabetes was found to be sweet. Diabetes mellitus is described today as an autoimmune disorder resulting in the destruction of beta cells in the pancreas, leading to the loss of ability to secrete insulin, which helps to regulate the storage and use of excess glucose in the blood.
What's in a Name?
Ancient scholars were highly interested in etymology as a way of investigating language and meaning. Their guesses as to the origins of words were often incorrect, but they also show a healthy dose of creativity and give us insight into the ways in which ancient thinkers conceived of the meaning of words. The following were cited by ancient etymologists as explanations for the names of various body parts. The lips (cheile) were so called because they shut (kleiein) the mouth. The spine (aknestis) was explained as being the body part that you cannot scratch (a + knesasthai) with your own hand. The legs (crura) are used for running (currere). The eyes (oculi) are covered (occulti) by the eyelids. The ribs (costae) guard (custodire) the internal organs. The head (caput) is where our senses and nerves take (capere) their beginning.
Leeches and Quacks
“Leech,” if used at all nowadays in medical contexts, is a derogatory term for a doctor, but it did not always have such a connotation, just as its presumed connection with the bloodsucking aquatic worm of the same name was not negative as long as bloodletting was standard medical practice, i.e., until the 19th century. “Quack,” by contrast, has always been a loaded term. It is an abbreviation of the early modern Dutch word quacksalver, which seems to mean “a seller of ointments (salves)” who promotes his wares aggressively, from quacken, to make a loud squawking noise. Like “leech,” “quack” seems rather old fashioned; perhaps English is set for a new colloquialism to denote a medical fraudster.