Saturday, April 14, 2007

Doctored talk

THE ‘dean’ of a university owes the title to the Roman word decanus that was used for the commander of a division of ten. Later, it was ‘borrowed’ by the church as a title for the monk who headed a group of ten monks. Keeping in mind the close relationship between learning and religion, it was a short journey from the church to the university. During this journey, the title became shortened to ‘dean’ and, now, this ‘dean’ could be head of more than ten.

‘Doctor’ owes its origin to the Latin doctor that was used as a form of address for a teacher. English vocabulary first took up the word ‘doctor’ to refer to ‘doctor of the church’ and soon ‘doctor’ came to be used for any learned person. Words like doctorate and doctoral were also adopted in the same sense. A serpent twined around a staff, the symbol of the medical profession, comes from Greek mythology. Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, was represented by this symbol. The serpent was thought to be an apt symbol for medicine because it gets a new skin every year, thus renewing its life and youth. The word ‘panacea’ is also connected with this god; because, Asclepius had a daughter called Panakeia and her name meant ‘the all-healing’, thus giving the English language a ‘panacea’ for all ills.

Nomenclatures just might need to be rephrased if professions keep galloping on at the current pace. As an illustration, take a look at the word ‘surgeon’ that took a pretty involved route in order to reach the English lexicon. The first root was the Greek kheirourgia, meaning ‘handiwork or surgery’ that is made up of kheir or ‘hand’ and ergon or ‘work’. Latin ‘borrowed’ this word, modifying it to chirurgia from where it reached French, only to be modified to surgien. English picked the word up from the French surgien and it carries the sense of ‘a person who uses the hands’. Would the word still be relevant when robots and computers might be the next surgeons?