Medical English I: Origins & Idiosyncrasies

I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accountants, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my God and German to my horse.

                        Frederick the Great of Prussia              SCAN0008 8.52.01 PM                       


Since the evolution of language some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, the history of language remains largely oral; only in the relatively recent past has a written record existed, allowing for a conditional dating of words. Hence, when a word first appears in those documents which have survived can be pinpointed, the word itself – and consequentg derivations – may have been used for centuries.


Appearing by 700AD, salve is one of the earliest medical terms recorded in English. Homer described their use for treating wounds in The Iliad, and Galen listed their ingredients. The legendary wealth of the Greek city of Laodicea was in part derived from Phrygian Powder, an eye salve combining olive oil and phrygian stone.

Salve comes from the Old English sealfe, which is in turn derived from the West Germanic salbo, meaning an oily substance. (West Germanic is the root language which gave rise to the Germanic languages, including Old English, Dutch, German, Yiddish, and the Fresian languages).

Curiously, quack (as in a medical charlatan) is derived from salve. First recorded in the 1630’s, quack is an abbreviation of quacksalver (1570s), from the Dutch kwaksalver (literally, a hawker of salves). The similarity between quacksalver and quicksilver (a treatment for syphilis) erroneously suggested a linked origin between these two words. Another theory dates quack back to when, visiting plague victims, doctors wore masks shaped like a duck’s beak.

An apt definition was penned by a doctor-friend of Wordsworth:

A potent quack, long versed in human ills,

Who first insults the victims whom he kills

George Crabbe The Village (1754-1832)






Plaster appears by 1000AD, coming via the Vulgar Latin plastrum from the Greek emplastron, meaning a salve or plaster. (Vulgar Latin was the everyday speech of Rome, as opposed to literary and classical Latin). Plaster of Paris, made by calcining gypsum, was so called after the discovery of large gypsum deposits near Montmartre.

Paracelsus termed medical plasters oppodeltoch in the 16th century, to include liniments dissolved in alcohol, with herbs and aromatic oils added. Mrs. Beaton included an opodeldoc (English variant) in her 1861 Book of Household Management: for treating a sprain, “the joint is to be rubbed twice a day with flannel dipped in opodeldoc”. Dr Steer’s Opodeldoc boasted in 1790: “The efficacy of this medicine in the Rheumatism, Lumbago, Bruises, Sprains, Cramps, &c. is universally acknowledged: it is equally serviceable in Numbness, Stiffness, and Weakness of the Joints, and in restoring a proper Circulation to the Limbs when in a Paralytic state. It is also excellent for Burns and Scalds, as well as for the Sting of venomous Insects. It is the best embrocation for Horses that are wrung in the Withers.”






Sick was in use by 900AD, and ail and sickness by1000 AD. Sick is derived from the Old English soec, and, similarly, sickness from soecnesse. Ail is also Old English in origin, coming from eglan (to trouble, plague or afflict).

Sick features in various expressions, such as to be as sick as a dog, first recorded in 1705. Various animals found their way into in this expression, including horses, (despite being one of the few domestic animals which cannot vomit). Sick abed on two chairs is an American expression common in the 1930’s. Interestingly, the Australian sickie doesn’t appear in the written record until the mid 20th century.

For curing of sickies, Abracadabra first appeared in a 2nd century Roman medical text, (although as an incantation it is probably derived from the Semitic languages). De medicina praecepta, written by the Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, describes how a sick person should wear a piece of parchment inscribed with a triangular formula of the word, to act like a funnel to drive the sickness from the body:














© Anne Harrison 2012



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