Written 1993, revised 2009 by Steven Lewis

The English language we speak and write arose in England, as its name implies, but the influence of other languages are deeply embedded in our daily and technical talk. This hybridization is especially evident within science, medicine, law and religion. Many of our medical terms, for example, are derived from the classical languages Greek and Latin. These were the languages of the scholars who discovered and named many of the basics of human biology and medicine. Even recent medical terms are often constructed from Latin or Greek elements.

The Greek language arose more than 3,000 years ago and became the dominant language in the world by the 4th century BCE (Before Common Era or Before Christian Era) largely as a result of the conquest of much of the known world by Alexander the Great. Greek was the language of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Greek was one of the first languages to develop an alphabet and, consequently, to be written. The word "alphabet" comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. Perhaps the most important Greek human biologist was Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), a physician who theorized that disease resulted from an imbalance of four bodily humours -- phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile. The numerous medical writings attributed to Hippocrates earned him the nickname "the father of medicine."

Rome began to displace the influence of Greece following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the resulting dissolution of his empire. By the 2nd century AD (from Latin Anno Domini - "year of our Lord") or CE (Common Era), the Roman Empire extended from North Africa to Britain. Rome became the center of learning and served as home for Marcus Terentius Varro, a prolific scholar who proposed a germ theory of disease in the first century BCE. Varro's work was eclipsed by Claudius Galen (130-200 AD), a Greek who became known as the "prince of physicians." Galen's numerous writings summarized what was then known about human biology and he originated many of the terms we use today, such as "platysma," "popliteus," "sphincter," "sphenoid" and "thalamus." Unfortunately, Galen adopted Hippocrates' humoural imbalance theory of disease and promoted the practice of purging patients through enemas, emetics and bleeding. Galen's writings were considered the ultimate authority on medicine by physicians for the next 1600 years, delayng the further development and acceptance of the germ theory of disease.

The official language of Rome was Latin. By the 4th century AD the Roman Empire and its language were disintegrating. Spoken Latin splintered into dialects that became the Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Latin itself became a dead language except among Christian scholars. During the Renaissance (1350-1650 AD) Latin was resurrected and became the international language of scholars. College lectures and textbooks were often presented in Latin. Even as late as the 1960s Catholic masses were routinely presented in Latin.

English is a much younger language than Greek or Latin. English arose about 1500 years ago in Britain after the disintegration of the Roman Empire and its language. English developed from languages brought to Britain by tribes from northern Europe -- the Angles, Saxons and Jutes -- around 500 AD. About a century later Christian missionaries introduced the Latin alphabet to Britain, permitting English to be written. The English letters you are reading are essentially the same as the Ancient Romans used to write Latin.

The period from 500 to 1100 AD is known as the Anglo-Saxon or Old English period of the language. Our most frequent terms of conversation come from this period. However, many of the words of Old English have fallen out of use, so that to a modern reader Old English reads much like a foreign language. The Middle English period (1100-1500 AD) began with a French invasion of England led by William the Conquerer in 1066. William and his followers attempted to impose their language onto the English, but the graft was eventually rejected. Nevertheless many French terms were incorporated into the English language during this time.

During the Modern English period (1500- ), and especially in the 20th century, English became the language of international communication.

Etymology is the study of the history of words. Many of the words of human biology have colorful histories, and an awareness of these hidden meanings can help us remember the current applications of these terms. For example, the word "hypochondriac" is applied to a person who compulsively exaggerates real or imagined illness. "Hypochondriac" is built from two elements derived from the Greek language: "hypo" means beneath and "chondros" means cartilage. Hypochondriacs were so-named because they often complained about vague discomforts beneath the cartilage of the rib cage -- the hypochondriac regions.

The word "anatomy" comes from an ancient Greek word that meant "to cut apart." "Anatomy" to the ancient Greeks meant roughly what the word "dissection" means to us today.

If you were having eye problems you would probably go to an eye doctor. The word "eye" apparently arose in England during the early years of development of the language, so we label "eye" as "Old English" or "Anglo-Saxon" English. On the other hand, a medical doctor who specializes in treating eye diseases is called an ophthalmologist after the Greek word for eye, "ophthalmos." The Romans had yet another word from the eye -- oculus -- that is used in the name of the circular muscle that surrounds the eye, the orbicularis oculus.

If you peruse different textbooks or speak with different professionals you will find that a word that means one thing to one professional may be used a bit differently by another. Even more variations are found among professionals in the pronunciation of words. One may say "nausea" while another says "nashea." One may say "DIEssect" while another may say "diSSECT." One may say "poplitEal" while another may say "popLITeal." These variations are inevitable; language is an evolving human behavior. Keep in mind as you study the terminology of human biology and medicine that your goal is to maximize the probability of success in communication, and not to learn the absolutely correct and forever unchanging meaning and pronunciation of terms.

When I was a child of 8 in the hospital with asthma a nurse would drop by each day and ask if I'd had a bowel movement. I hadn't noticed anything moving, so I kept saying no. A couple days later the nurse came in with an enema bottle, I asked my mother what the nurse was going to do. Mom said she was going to give me an enema because I hadn't pottied. I said, "Yes I have." But it was too late. I got the enema whether I needed it or not. The moral of the story is that you should use language appropriate for the context. You don't ask a child if they've had a "bowel movement" or "BM." You ask them if they've pottied.

Because the meanings of words are in us and not in the words themselves, we must be alert to the fact that the terms we use may not evoke the same meanings in others. Among most people the word "stomach" refers roughly to anywhere in the abdominal cavity. To an anatomist, the stomach is an organ in the left upper quadrant. In 1996 my dad began complaining of a pain in his "stomach." I was thinking gastric ulcer, gallstones, pancreatitis. Turns out he had colon cancer in his lower left quadrant, well away from his anatomic stomach. His surgery was successful, but the moral of the story is that the meanings of words are in us and not in the words. If we are not conscious of this we get enemas we don't need and diagnoses that are wrong.

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