Dorlands Illustrated Medical Dictionary contains a splendid chapter on the fundamentals of medical etymology by Dr. Lloyd Day, Allen Memorial Professor of Greek at the University of pennsylvania.
Medical etymology is the study of the origins and meanings of medical terms. It was originally called “medical dermenology” in 17th-Century France, and before that it was known as “etimologie médicale”.
In ancient times, doctors studied medicines from their effects on people’s health and well-being. Eventually, when they wanted further explanations for what they saw happening to patients, they began studying words used in everyday language to describe those actions. The result was a body of knowledge that would later serve as a key ingredient to how medicine is practiced today – and many medical scholars still rely on this technique today as a way of finding meaning behind unfamiliar terms.
For a while, there was a popular belief that etymology was primarily a matter of fascinating trivia; however, this is rarely the case. Medical etymology has often proved to be extremely useful in medical science. For instance, the origin of “salutary” is uncovered using the history of medieval Latin but is also confirmed by Latin manuscripts. Sometimes it can offer information about the original meaning but sometimes it only reveals how the term evolved during its history. For instance, “diarrhea” was originally used to describe “the flowing of honey.
In addition, medical etymology can be revealing about how certain terms came to be associated in people’s minds with particular diseases or medical conditions. For instance, “cholera” is said to have come from the Greek for “falling sickness”. “Cholerian”, as the word indicates, was used for a disease characterized by a severe tendency to fall sick. Later, the term “choleric” came to mean watery diarrhea that often results from some form of food poisoning (often caused by contaminated water).
Newborns were once called “newborn men” in Europe and China, so it is not surprising that this term was used in the English language as well. The term “neonate” has come to replace it over time.
In medical etymology, a synonym is a word that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another one.
Disease terms often have several different names in different languages; this is especially true when the disease name comes from Latin or Greek according to Lloyd Day. These names are often like those of other diseases and not very informative about what kind of illness they are. For instance, “mumps” and “chickenpox” seem to be similar in some way but do not help us know it they are both viral illnesses or that they are caused by similar viruses.