As one of Shakespeare’s characters feels, life is a twice-told tale vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man. We use countless hazy and humdrum words to carry on and carry out this tiresome phenomenon called life, and we sometimes become so sick of them that we prefer silence for avoiding deadly monotony of speech. It is therefore a pleasure to turn sometimes from the fuzzy, furry, monotonous and foggy words of everyday speech to the vocabulary of science, academics and professions.
The terminology of these fields is, for the most part, definite precise, and sharply delimited and an exploration through this kingdom of professional words provides ample pleasure and surprise.When in surgery, for example, one doctor says to another, “I have just performed an appendectomy”, there is no doubt as to what has happened. His doctor friend knows that “-ectomy” is a Greek form that means “a cutting out”, so an appendix operation has been done. That is quite clear and no doubt is left.
But let us pretend someone has just said, “I am against capitalism and in favour of labour”. Now we are leaving the exact language of science and are entering the vague and sometimes almost meaningless language that the rest of us speak. A doctor knows what an appendectomy is, and a professor knows who an anthropologist is. But, as we have asked before, what may a capitalist be?
Exactly how much money must one have to be a capitalist? And who is a labourer? Is he one who works with his hands? Not all labourers do that these days. Would a person who wrote a famous book be called a labourer? The so-called labourers often call a strike against their “capitalistic” bosses, just as though their employers were a different breed of men from another world. And yet the word labour comes from the Latin laborare, which meant “to be tired”, and with such a derivation this world could often apply to the boss. He gets tired, too. As a side comment it is only since the Formation that labour has been regarded as a duty. Before that folks worked because they had to.
The tragedy of English language is that there are no satisfactory answers to these questions. Words such as capital and labour make artificial boundaries between people that don’t actually exist and this situation causes trouble no end in our world. Truly the language of daily use is an inadequate and a most imperfect means of communication. We speak but except in the field of science these words have no specific meanings. No wonder, at one time a famous mathematician said that English language should be retailored and reduced to a series of algebraic formulas. No wonder that in a science such as medicine, where words can mean life and death, it has been necessary to create a special dictionary of some 70,000 medical terms so that the doctors would know what they were talking about.
The words we use to speak to each other are not accurate enough for medicine, surgery, or for any of the sciences. If no other words had been invented, the scientists would be as vague in their understanding of each other as non-specialist laymen are. It is for this reason that astronomy, mathematics, archaeology and all the rest have had to invent their own vocabularies. It is because of these special vocabularies that little confusion regarding words exists in the realm of academic disciplines, science and professional fields.
But the study of etymology of scientific, academic and professional words too is quite interesting and brings to light many unknown or little known facts or anecdotes. Besides, we can also see the changes that have taken place in the meanings of the words in course of time.
There is a pleasant story regarding the word academy. A Spartan maiden, named Helen, was kidnapped by the legendary hero Theseus. Her twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, who are now in the heavens as two bright stars, searched for their sister without success until they met the farmer, Akademos, who seems to have given them some hint as to the whereabouts of the kidnapper and his victim. As a reward for his alertness, the grove of Akademos was eternally watched over by the gods. It was in this grove that the great philosopher Plato held his classes. The grove was called Academia, and for many years after his death his pupils and followers met in the same spot for their discussions. Plato never verified the story of the farmer, but he gave us the word academy that now means a place of learning.
The roots of many medical terms can also be traced back to antiquity. Before undergoing an operation, a patient is to be put to anaesthesia, which originally meant “no feeling”. Sir Humphry Davy first accomplished artificial anaesthesia in 1800 and in that period medical men would have had enough Greek to know that Plato used the word anaisthesia to mean “insensibility” from an (“not”) and aisthesis (“feeling”).
Modern civilisation can be paralysed if electricity is discontinued even for an hour. The word electricity originally meant “the beaming sun”. The Greeks knew that when you rubbed amber, it would become magnetic and begin to draw feathers and strings and other light objects to it. Little more than this was known about electricity until comparatively recent times. The ancients used to make amulets out of amber, and guaranteed that the wearing of one would attract a lover. Since friction can make amber give off sparks, the Greeks named it elektron from elektor (“the beaming sun”). This word passed into Latin as electrum and was turned into the adjective electricus, whence our electric and electricity.
Entomology is the branch of zoology that treats insects. The word is based on the Greek entomos which means “cut up”. If we examine an ant or a wasp or a similar insect, we shall see that their bodies are indented and appear to be “cut up” into sections. The word “insect” from the Latin insectum (“cut up”) is simply a Roman rendering of the Greek idea.
Anyone who suffers from agoraphobia has a morbid fear of open spaces. Joseph Conrad, the novelist, suffered from this, and always placed his chair in the corner of a room with the angle of the walls behind him so that there would be no open space to the rear. The Greek language gave us this word from agora (“market place”) and phobia (“fear”). People with this fear would be afraid of the open market place or of open fields.
A doctor is perhaps the nearest to us of all professional men. Literally, a doctor is a teacher, for his name, which is pure Latin, comes from doceo and doctus meaning “teach”. It was originally applied to any learned man, and we have a certain survival of this when we speak of a Doctor of Letters, Philosophy, or Law. It was not until the late middle ages that a doctor became more particularly a medical man. A word that was very close to the original meaning of doctor was pundit. It is from Sanskrit pandita or “learned man”. It came to mean a Hindu who was versed in Sanskrit and in the philosophy, law and religion of India. Now, it is usually used in a somewhat humorous and familiar way about a stuffy, intellectual snob! There are many words in the academic field, which make interesting etymological study. The word pedagogue is a case in point. An instructor of young people is a schoolmaster, and the history of the word pedagogue demands that he should be such, for this terms comes from the identical Greek word pedagogue, which divides into pais, paidos (“child”) and ago (“lead”). Originally, and quite literally, it was the slave who “led” the child to school and home again by the hand. Little attention was paid to the education of girls in ancient Greek days, but the sons were taught by the pedagogues who were slaves in the families of the rich.
A demagogue, by the way, leads “people” (demos) in other directions. When we see a group of young pupils sitting in a classroom, they look a bit like dolls, and that is why the word pupil came from the Latin term pupilla meaning “a little doll”.The elective subjects that boys and girls pick out in college are those that they choose themselves. The Latin language contributes this word from electus, which is made up of e, “from”, and lego, meaning choose. The word college itself means “chosen together”. The source is the Latin collegium from col (with) and lego (choose), that is, in a college one is chosen along with another.
And as to the word seminary, we discover that it is a close cousin to semen. The Latin semen meant “seed” and seminarium, “a seed plot”. So the seminaries for young girls and for young theologians are nurseries where the “seeds” of knowledge are sown and cultivated. Streptococcus bacteria have an interesting etymological origin.
A brilliant surgeon and bacteriologist, Dr ACT Billroth by name, lived in Vienna at the time of Brahms, and, incidentally, was an intimate friend of the great composer. It was this doctor who coined the name streptococcus. He formed it from Latin terminology, but the elements are pure Greek as streptos means “a twisted necklace”, and kokkos stands for a “seed”. The idea is that under the microscope, these bacteria are seen to form long necklaces or chains. The diseases we humans are heir to are many. The etymological study of these diseases is also intriguing. To early physicians any epidemic was a “blow” and this ultimately was the sense of the word plague, which goes back through French to the Latin plaga, meaning “blow”. The ancient Romans came close to our modern germ theory. They suspected that there were things that flew around in the air and brought disease. It was for this reason that they learned not to pitch their camps by swamps for they had noted that marshes seemed to produce chills and fever.
We took our term malaria, which describes this kind of a fever from the Italian words mala aria or “bad air”.They guessed shrewdly that the air carried trouble with it. One of the characteristics of diphtheria is the leathery appearance of the false membrane of the throat that forms during the illness, so this affliction was called after the Greek word diphtheria, which meant “skin” or “hide”.
A tumour is certainly a swelling, and that is precisely what tumor means in Latin. The same source gave us tumult as in “the tumult of the crowd”, and that is, the “swell” of agitation and noise in the crowd. With some of the diseases there can be delirium. At such a time, when the patient has slightly crazy ideas we say that he is “off his track”. The same idea is concealed in the word delirium. The Latin parts are de, meaning “off” and lira or “track” or “furrow”, like the plow is “off” the “furrow” and wandering around.
There are innumerable such words in English the study of whose etymology gives us real intellectual pleasure as well as fodder for serious scholarly discussions, and it reminds us that the land of words is truly a wonderland.