«The Etymology of Medicine BY THELMA CHAREN Subject Header, Current List of Medical Literature Army Medical Library Washington, D. C. T HE intention ...»
The Etymology of Medicine
BY THELMA CHAREN
Subject Header, Current List of Medical Literature
Army Medical Library
Washington, D. C.
T HE intention of this article is to reflect upon the origin of the word
medicine, to find the ultimate etymological source from which the rivers of
this all-reaching science have sprung. In so doing, it may be possible to study
the semantic processes by which the complexity of medicine as we know it today has evolved from the temple medicine of the Greeks. The plan is to trace the word medicine back through its linguistic and grammatical transformations to its primary root.
The words medicinie and medical appear frequently. We have no difficulty in recognizing the variant forms which appear in a medical library: medicina, medecine, Medizin, meditsinia, and medycyna. The linguistic relationship is so patent that it can stop there. Although a cursory examination of a score of books on medical terminology in numerous languages discloses definitions, explanations, and exegeses of extensive scientific vocabularies, it reveals no comprehensive analysis of the word medicine.
Just as we recognize the familial relationship of the words for medicine in the various languages, so we have no difficulty in recognizing the grammatical derivatives from the medicine we see daily; even the rare, obsolete, or obsolescent forms show the mother word: medicamentally, medicaruentary, medicamentation, medicamentous, mediciner, medicining, medify, medicinable, medicinary, medicaster, medicator, and medicatory (1). A medieval Latin word-list (2) gives two further forms which did not enter English: medicatura (medical treatment) and medicinatio (medicine, drug, or cure); these might have appeared as medicature and medicination.
From medicinle, from the Latin medicina, meaning the profession as we know it, it is but one etymological step backward to medicus, the physician.
Any dictionary, English or foreign, takes us there. The most complete coverage regarding the derivation seems to be that of Henry Alan Skinner in The Origin
sf Medical Terms. He states that it is from the Latin:
Medicina, the art of healing, or the means of healing, from medicinus, relating to healing, from medeor or medicor, to heal or cure. Medicina is thus a substantive noun from the adjective medicinus; as also medicus the adjective which meant healing or wholesome used as a substantive meant doctor or physician. At first medicus was a general term applied to anyone associated with the healing art and the care or treatment of patients. The Greek equivalent
THE ETYMOLOGY OF M-EDICINE
The verb form medeor is the ultimate origin given us in Dr. Skinner's derivation and in other similar sources. The verb medeor itself, however, has a remote ancestry, the ancient Indo-European root MA and MAD and its more familiar hypothetical form MED, meaning to think or to reflect, to give consideration or care to (4). Ernout and Meillet state that the root MED in this sense "is found from one end of the Indo-European kingdom to the other"(5).
In Latin MED appears, in addition to medeor above, in the frequentative* form meditor, meditate, and all its derivatives. These retain the first meaning of the root, that is, thought in general or meditation. In Greek the word lAbolAac (short e) means to give attention to or to think about. The idea of thought inherent in the MED root leads to the verb /.Lt&o,4aL (long e) which incorporates a more deliberate sense of counsel or advice, and to the noun,Usbos (plural,uilbea) meaning plans or counsels and subsequently schemes.
This last meaning is seen in the Medea of Greek tragedy, Medea the Sorceress, the Schemer, the Cunning. The same root, less evil in intent, appears in Archimedes, Diomedes, Ganymede, Laomedon-names familiar to us from Greek history and mythology. In other languages too there is direct evidence of this extended meaning of thought following MED: the Armenian mit (reflection) and the Icelandic mdt (appraisal).
From the concept of general thought there follows naturally deliberate thought, judgment, or decision, the weighing of fact (and object) or measuring.
There is evidence of this element of judgment in the Irish forms midiur (I judge) and ro midar (I have judged). The Greek,4,EL6OJaL given above implied judgment; the official weight of this judgment takes the form of domination in j,&wv or,4ovaa, a ruler. This form also appears in the mythological Medusa known to us through the Perseus legend. The Irish retains this meaning in con-midathar, he rules or has the power to.
At this point we can amplify the reference to the early meddix given in Dr.
Skinner's quotation. Meddix appears in Latin dictionaries as coming from medeor and means "he who gives thought to," comparable to the Homeric,uwv or,.&ovaa, given above as one who rules. Among the Oscans, a people of ancient Italy, it was a magistrate, a MED-dic-s, one who points out the law. The meddix tuticus of early inscriptions was the highest Oscan magistrate, as reported by classical and post-classical writers. Dr. Edmund Andrews in A History of Scientific English also reports the ancient inscription, translating the word as "a tribune of the people, that is, one to protect them from the rapacity of nobles"(6). I think, however, that his interpretation is less closely Frequentative in grammar is a form which expresses frequent repetition; e.g., quacro, * so mediseek; quaerito, ask persistently. Likewise, medeor, think; meditor, keep thinking and tate.
218 THELMA CHAREN allied to the idea of protection in MED in its extended meaning than it is to the idea of the intellectual judgment of the early root meaning of think or reflect, the major duty of a magistrate in legal judgment. Moreover, this technical sense of giving judgment in an official and legal capacity appears not in Latin, report Ernout and Meillet, but in the other early Italian dialects.
This, therefore, seems to substantiate the earlier and primary meaning of MED in meddix as one who gives judgment rather than the later meaning of caring for or protecting the people.
Up to this point the original MED root has progressed from thought in general to specific judgment. Now from reflecting and judging come also measuring and weighing physically. This advanced meaning appears in the Gothic milan and the Old High German maz, both meaning measure; in the Irish med, balance; in the Greek supE6vos, a dry corn-measure; in the Latin medius, a peck. It appears in English in all the derivatives from the Latin modus, measure, quantity, or extent, from which we in turn get modest, commodious, accommodate, mode, modern, moderate; in all of these we can detect a concept of measuring, making fit and proportionate.
The transition from the original simple thinking and the later considered judgment would entail doing something active about it, in other words, to care for. Here we are now approaching the more specific and eventually the completely technical sense of medicine as care and attention to a specialized group, the sick. It is precisely the same process which enabled the Latin word curo (to care for) to become care for the sick and ultimately the curing of them and likewise the simple Greek Oepa7revd (to wait on) to become the therapy of the sick.
By the classical period of Latin medeor is well established in its third level of developed thought: giving attention to the sick, thence to healing. An archaic form, medela, * remedy, was replaced in the classical period by the very word remedium and the derivatives we know. A very early inscription suggests Meditrina, a goddess of healing, in the October festival dedicated to her, the Meditrinalia (7).
We are now approaching MED in its last phase. M1Iedicus is the adjective form of the manifestation we know most commonly and its verb form is medico or medicor. The adjective medicinus, pertaining to medical, was used as an adjective in pre-classical and post-classical Latin and as a noun its use is classical. In the feminine gender medicina is used in three substantive forms.
When used with the word ars (art or skill) it signified the profession as we know it, medicine and sometimes surgery; with officina (shop) it signified the "office" of the practitioner or the shop where his remedies were purchased;
with res (thing or object) it signified the medicine or prescription itself (8).
The Mttedieval Latin Word-List cited above gives on p. 261 from a manuscript of c.731 * A.D. medeliferus, healing, from medela, remedy and fero, bring, produce.
THE ETYMOLOGY OF MEDICINEIt is interesting to note that when it appeared in medieval literature it had not only the meaning of a legal remedy but also of an elixir able to turn lead into gold and copper into silver (9).
Although the Romans made little distinction between the trades and professions, between artisan and artist in our sense of the words, still they consciously devised a hierarchy of professions, as it were, placing on the highest level those who pursued the aries liberales, among them the physician, sculptor, architect, teacher, and chemist.
In poetry and post-Augustan prose the participle medens from medeor was used as the substantive for physician. The usual word, however, was medicus* pertaining to healing. I have found in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum epigraphical evidence of inscriptions, for the most part from Rome, containing not only medicus (10) but in addition medicus chlirurgus (11) (surgeon), medicus ocularius (12) (eye doctor), medicus auricularius (13) (ear doctor), medicus veterinarius (14) (veterinarian), medicus equarius (15) (horse doctor), mulomedicus (16) (mule doctor), medicus ludi (17) (doctor at the games or our athletic physician), scriba medicorum (18) (possibly a writer of prescriptions) and also medica (19) (woman physician). Further, Orelli cites inscriptions bearing the words medicus alarum (20) and medicus legionis (21) (our army doctors), medicus triremis (22) (ship doctor), medicus iumentarius (23) (cattle doctor), medicus clinicus (24) (a physician who attends patients in bed, from KXLvfl, bed) and schola medicorum (25) (medical school). Both the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (26) and Orelli (27) give medicus a bybliothecis. Although a bybliothecis (bibliothecis) was the Latin for librarian, the full significance with medicus is not entirely clear.
Dr. Edmund Andrews states that medicus "simply means an intermediary probably between God and man" (28) and later that medicus "implied mediation, probably as suggested earlier, between God and man in a priestly capacity" (29). He offers meddix as testimony of this, but it appears to be unsubstantiated in the face of the history of MED derivatives presented in this paper. Dr.
Andrews, a keen student of the history of medicine as well as of the evolution of biomedical terminology, knows well and proves ably the development of early medicine in early religion. His physician as the temple mediator between the sick and God is historically acceptable. Moreover, he gives substantial linguistic proof which archaeology and history confirm. His implication, however, as I read it, is that MEDicus is the MEDiator, from MEDius, meaning * It is interesting to note that the word appears in the name of the famous 14th, 15th, and 16th century Florentine family, De Medici. I am unable to quote the source or to verify the statement that the balls or roundels on their coat of arms are pills in commemoration of their medical origin, in addition to those balls which represent their banking background.
G. F. Young in The.Medici (New York, Dutton, 1913, Vol. 1, p. 20) denies that the family was originally physicians or apothecaries and states that the origin of the balls is unknown.
220 THELMA CHAREN middle, from an entirely different root. I have found nothing in the dictionaries and etymological sources to support his views.
In our analysis of the word medicus from the word medeor we have passed through all the stages of crystallization from thinking in general through considered reflection to actively giving care to the sick. Having accepted the universal definition of medicine as the science dealing with the prevention, cure, or alleviation of disease, we can in turn accept the ancient Indo-European root MED as clearly extending to the diagnostic appraisal and clinical evaluation which are the hallmarks of medicine. After meditating on and deliberately weighing the illness, the medicus, the agent who also judges, counsels, and attends the patient and his ills, can well be the physician. The clinics and laboratories, the therapies and prescriptions of modern medical practice have long since crept into the original concept of consideration and counsel. Still daily, current medical literature proffers evidence of an inevitable return to the root meaning of medicine. In the words of a modern physician, The value of the physician is derived far more from what may be called his general qualities than from his special knowledge. A sound knowledge of the aetiology, pathology, and natural history of the commoner diseases is a necessary attribute of any competent clinician. But such qualities as good judgement, the ability to see the patient as a whole, the ability to see all aspects of a problem in the right perspective, and the ability to weigh up evidence are far more important than the detailed knowledge of some rare syndrome, or even the possession of an excellent memory and a profound desire for learning. (30)
REFERENCESOxford English Dictionary. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1933. Vol. 6, p. 293-6.
BAXTER, J. H. AND JOHNSON, CHARLES: Medieval Latin Word-List from British and 2.
Irish Sources. London, Oxford University Press, 1934, p. 262.
SKINNER, HENRY ALAN: The Origin of Medical Terms. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins, 3.
1949, p. 228.
LEwis, CHARLTON T.: An Elementary Latin Dictionary. N. Y., American Book Co., 4.
1918, p. 944.
ERNOUT, A. AND MIEILLET, A.: Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue latine; histoire 5.
des mots. Nouv. ed. Paris, Klincksieck, 1939, p. 599.
ANDREWS, EDMUND: A History of Scientific English. N. Y., Richard R. Smith, 1947, 6.
ORELLI, JOHANN CASPAR: Inscriptionusn latinarum selectarum amplissima collectio.
Zurich, Orelli, Fuessli, 1828, Vol. 2, p. 400.