De verborum notatio morbi – On the etymology of diseases

I find that the more we understand about the world, the less imaginative our names for diseases. Your stomach hurts? We can look at your blood work, X-ray your gut after a barium meal and, hey presto, you have appendicitis. LAME! Maybe you’ve got The Irritable Ghosts and what’s happening is that the ghosts that are inhabting your scrotum are banging on the roof because your lungs are too loud. Treatment is shutting up and dying prematurely. Let’s explore the names of other diseases.

 

My Latin dictionary is not only useful for DotW article photos, but also if I suddenly get transported into Ancient Rome (Picture taken by Thomas Tu)

Thomas fact: I studied Latin for 5 years in high school and quite enjoyed it. Ms. Zakis seemed like a bit of a technophobe (she showed us slides from her holiday to Rome on a 35mm slide projector) so she’s probably not reading this now, but “Hi, Ms. Zakis” if you are.

 

Anyway, one of the lasting things in my memory apart from the first and second declensions (servus serve servum servi servo servo, servi servi servos servorum servis servis…) is that the Ancient Romans got hit hard by malaria and this may have hastened the fall of the Roman empire. In fact, their descendants in medieval Italy gave us the name malaria from mala aria or “bad air”. They hypothesised that malaria came from breathing in the rotting stench of marshes and swamps, to the point where they started draining them as a disease control measure. They weren’t too far from source; mosquitos carrying the malaria parasite were prevalent in the stagnant waters near the swamps of Italy.

 

Next door (empirically speaking), the Ancient Greeks were leaking out of their togas. Unsavory men would find it painful to urinate and look like they were continually ejaculating. They named this disease gonorrhoea meaning “flowing of seed”. What was actually happening was that these guys had the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae growing in their urinary tracts. Their immune systems would send white blood cells to the site to eat up the bacteria. During the process, the white blood cells would die, bloated full of now-inactivated bacteria. The dead white blood cells would build up to such a degree that rivers of them would flow forth in the form of pus.

 

If they lived through that, in their old age they might develop grotesque lumps all over their body. These growths might burst through the skin and reveal their seeping, decaying interiors. They’d be accompanied with a chronic vice-like pain, as if they were being pinched by a giant crab, or cancer in Greek. Of course, the ancients probably didn’t know that cancer was composed of the body’s own cells and most certainly didn’t know that cancer was actually hundreds of different diseases with just as many causes.

 

Syphilis was also a problem in ancient times (and has been until recently when penicillin was invented in the 1940s). The name syphilis came from a character’s name in an early 15th century poem by a Veronese doctor Girolamo Fracastroro called “Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus“, literally Syphilis or the French Disease. In this poem, Syphilis the shepherd is named as the first sufferer of the disease.

 

Later on, this disease picked up the euphemistic title The Great Pox. As I’d described earlier, one of the earliest signs of syphilis was a large (big as the end of your finger) painless ulcer at the site of infection. Once healed, it would leave a great, big pock mark. This differentiated it from the other disease going around at the time, smallpox. This would leave its victims disfigured with tiny pocks all over their body, as if they’d been fired upon with birdshot.

 

Anyway, the golden age of disease etymology seems to be over. The classical names of Consumption, Shingles and The Kissing Disease have slowly been replaced by the precise awkward terms of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and primary hepatocellular carcinoma. Maybe one day we will regain the poetry of diseases…

 

I find that the more we understand about the world, the less imaginative our names for diseases. Your stomach hurts? We can look at your blood work, X-ray your gut after a barium meal and, hey presto, you have appendicitis. LAME! Maybe you’ve got The Irritable Ghosts and what’s happening is that the ghosts that are inhabting your scrotum are banging on the roof because your lungs are too loud. Treatment is shutting up and dying prematurely. Let’s explore the names of other diseases.

 

 

Thomas fact: I studied Latin for 5 years in high school and quite enjoyed it. Ms. Zakis seemed like a bit of a technophobe (she showed us slides from her holiday to Rome on a 35mm slide projector) so she’s probably not reading this now, but “Hi, Ms. Zakis” if you are.

 

Anyway, one of the lasting things in my memory apart from the first and second declensions (servus serve servum servi servo servo, servi servi servos servorum servis servis…) is that the Ancient Romans got hit hard by malaria and this may have hastened the fall of the Roman empire. In fact, their ancestors in medieval Italy gave us the name malaria from mala aria or “bad air”. They hypothesised that malaria came from breathing in the rotting stench of swamps. They weren’t too far from source; mosquitos carrying the malaria parasite were prevalent in the stagnant waters near the swamps of Italy.

 

Next door (empirically speaking), the Ancient Greeks were leaking out of their togas. Unsavory men would find it painful to urinate and look like they were continually ejaculating. They named this disease gonorrhoea meaning “flowing of seed”. What was actually happening was that these guys had the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae growing in their urinary tracts. Their immune systems would send white blood cells to the site to eat up the bacteria. While eating up the bacteria, the white blood cells would build up to such a degree that rivers of them would flow forth in the form of pus.

 

If they lived through that, in their old age they might develop grotesque lumps all over their body. These growths might burst through the skin and reveal their seeping, decaying interiors. They’d be accompanied with a chronic vice-like pain, as if they were being pinched by a giant crab, or cancer in Greek. Of course, the ancients probably didn’t know that cancer was composed of the body’s own cells and most certainly didn’t know that cancer was actually hundreds of different diseases with just as many causes.

 

Syphilis was also a problem in ancient times (and has been until recently when penicillin was invented in the 1940s). The name syphilis came from a character’s name in an early 15th century poem by a Veronese doctor Girolamo Fracastroro called “Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus“, literally Syphilis or the French Disease. In this poem, Syphilis the shepherd is named as the first sufferer of the disease.

 

Later on, this disease picked up the euphemistic title The Great Pox. As I’d described earlier, one of the earliest signs of syphilis was a large (big as the end of your finger) painless ulcer at the site of infection. Once healed, it would leave a great, big pock mark. This differentiated it from the other disease going around at the time, small pox. This would leave its victims disfigured with tiny pocks all over their body, as if they’d been fired upon with birdshot.

 

Anyway, the golden age of disease etymology seems to be over. The classical names of Consumption, Shingles and The Kissing Disease have slowly been replaced by the precise awkward terms of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and primary hepatocellular carcinoma. Maybe one day we will regain the poetry of diseases…

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5 Comments

Filed under Thomas' Corner

5 responses to “De verborum notatio morbi – On the etymology of diseases

  1. Uwe

    Nice Thomas really enjoyed reading this one. Your right of course we do need cool names for diseases.

    • thomastu

      Thanks Uwe,

      Is it so nice that I can submit it instead of my thesis? Pleeeeease?

      Also, nothing much has gone on in the lab these few weeks because of virology masterclass. Back into the swing of things now though.

      TT

  2. Arr, Latin be a fine language. I didn’t learn it in high school, but you can get Harry Potter in Latin and I can read that because I know the story so damn well. Methinks you can buy it from Dymocks if you’re interested in some HP Latin wonder.

    Wow, that description of gonorrhoea was so gross. Flowing of seed, but hang on it’s actually PUS? Excuse me while I vomit.

  3. Ooh, I just found another one. Influenza is named because it was thought epidemics were under the influence of stars.

    • thomastu

      Nice catch, Skellet. I just looked up Shingles, which is a reactivation of chickenpox. Apparently, it came from Latin cingulum meaning “girdle” because the rash wraps around only a portion of your torso (which is innervated by a single spinal ganglion) like a girdle. How delightful!

      TT

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