Saturday, January 20, 2001

Medical terms

WHEN a person is inoculated, the doctor literally ‘plants’ a small seedling of the virus or germ that causes the disease in order to give immunity. The word inoculate began life as a purely horticultural term and meant to insert an eye or a bud in a plant for propagation. It came from the Latin in (into) and oculus (eye). When inoculation against smallpox was introduced, it came to be applied in the present sense. The usual symbol for medicine is a serpent twined around a staff. This is the sign of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. The serpent was taken to represent medicine because it is the symbol of youth and eternal life , as it gets a new skin every year. Asclepius had a daughter called Panakeia, ‘the all-healing’. From her comes the word panacea.

The ancient Romans owed their government certain ‘gifts’. However, a few citizens would be exempted from giving these ‘gifts’. Munia was the Latin word for these gifts or obligations. A person who was exempted from making a particular gift of money or service was immunis. In English, the word became immunity, meaning freedom from something burdensome, a legal obligation or an illness. Toxin comes from the Greek toxon, meaning bow because arrows were often poisoned with what the Greeks called toxicon pharmakon or poison of the bow.

Painting the town red
January 6, 2001
Expressions from seas
December 23,2000
Time capsule of words
December 16,2000
New words
December 2,2000
Words from myths
November 11,2000
The Olympics
October 14,2000
More metaphors
September 30, 2000
Metaphorical colour
September 16, 2000
Broader vistas
September 2, 2000
August 19, 2000
August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000
The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000

The word patient comes from the Latin pati, to suffer, so it is impossible to be relaxed and comfortable while being a patient. The Greek ortho means straight and ‘ped’ comes from the Sanskrit pad which means foot. Students who find Algebra a pain in the neck will be happy to know that the word is linked with a painful medical practice. In order to christen this new branch of Mathematics, the ancients borrowed the medical term al jebr from Arabic which meant ‘reuniting what is broken’, a term which was used in medicine for bone-setting.

When pain is the subject, palliative can’t be too far. Pallium was a rectangular woollen cloak draped over the left shoulder and the body, the traditional garb of the ancient Greek philosophers. From the word pallium, Latin derived palliatus which meant ‘covered with a cloak’. This led to ‘palliate our sins’ or ‘cover with a cloak’ so that they will seem less offensive. A palliative reduces the severity of pain and makes it less severe, in a sense, cloaking it.


The evolution of meaning is indispensable to language users as, due to this process, word meaning acquires an elasticity which makes words handy and user-friendly. If there was a word for every single concept, the memory would collapse under the burden of so many words. The extension of words and the evolution of meaning run side by side, thus helping the memory and stimulating the imagination. Surely, it is more simple and enjoyable to learn pind, a lump, pindaa, a body, pindli, calf of the leg, pinna, a cake of mustard, pinni, a kind of sweetmeat, pindalu, a kind of root, pindi, a mass of sand, and pinda, oblations, all derived from the same root pind, which is a lump or mass, than to memorise eight different words with different sounds, derived from different roots.

— Deepti