Medical English II


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


Knee appears by 900AD, coming from the Old English cneo, or cneow. These words derive from the Proto-Germanic knewan, from the Proto-Indo-European geneu (an ancestral language of the Indo-European family, dated to roughly 5,500 years ago). From geneu arises the Latin genu, giving words such as genuflect (1630) and geniculate.

Curiously, knee-cap (the noun, not the verb associated with gangsters) doesn’t appear until around 1870, yet knee-high to a grasshopper was first recorded in 1851. The term the bee’s knees became popular in the early 1920’s, as did the bee’s nuts and the flea’s eyebrows.

On the 28th March, 1814, Lord Byron penned in his diary:

Yesterday, dined tête-à-tête at the Cocoa with Scrope Davies… drank between us one bottle of champagne and six of claret, neither of which wines ever affect me. Scrope…was tipsy and pious and I was obliged to leave him on his knees praying to I know not what purpose or good.

Praying, of course, can lead to Parson’s knees. The term Wii knee was first used in 2007 for injuries caused by exuberant playing of Wii games. Wii wrist, Wii elbow and Wii hip soon followed.





Both blood and bloody appear in the English language by 725 AD. They are Old English in origin – blod – which in turn comes from the Proto-Germanic blodam.

By comparison, the Greek haima / haimat  became a root for many medical terms created in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as haemoglobin (1862, haima + globules, globule); haemorrhage (haima + rhēgnunai, burst) and haematemesis (haimat + emesis, vomiting). The word haemophilia (haima + phile, to love) was originally coined as hämophile in 1828 by the German physician Johann Lucas Schönlein. This combination of Greek roots remains obscure; does a haemophiliac love their blood, or, is the converse is true, that a haemophiliac loves to bleeds?

The phrase blue blood is a literal translation of the Spanish sangre azul. It stems from a time when the oldest and proudest families of Castile, refusing to intermarry with the conquering Moors, proved their breeding by pointing to the veins on their forearms: under their fair skin, the blue tinge of the veins was obvious to all.





A delightful tongue-twister of a word, apothecary appeared by 1375. It came via the Greek apotheke (apo, away + tithenai, to put, hence a storehouse) to the Late Latin for a storehouse – apothecaries (Late Latin being the language of Rome from c300-700 AD), to the Old French apotecaire.

By the 17th century, the meaning had narrowed to one specializing in selling medicines and drugs, and in 1617 the Apothecaries’ Company of London separated from The Grocers’ Company. Their reputation for having an “affectation of knowledge … who are commonly as superficial in their learning as they are pedantic in their language” (Francis Grose, “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” 1796) gave rise to the phrases Apothecary’s Latin and Dog Latin, implying monstrous misuse of the language.

Despite this, a New Orleans apothecary bequeathed cocktails to the world. In the 1790s, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, (who invented Peychaud bitters), held Masonic gatherings in his apothecary shop. He served a mixture containing brandy, bitters and sugar in an egg-cup ­­– or coquetier – giving the drink its name. (A competing theory claims a doctor in Ancient Rome commonly prescribed “cockwine” – a wine-based drink  – to which Emperor Lucius Aurelius was particularly partial.)



© Anne Harrison 2013


2 Thoughts on “Medical English II

  1. Fascinating, Anne.
    A combination of my two favourite topics–medicine and etymology.

    And I just love the quote from Frederick the Great. I wonder if Ed the talking horse ever learned German?

    And thanks for your comment on my post on Shakespeare and cardiac risk factors at

    Glad I’ve found your blog.

    • anneharrison on October 24, 2013 at 2:31 pm said:

      Dear Justin,
      You can always rely on the Prussians.

      Glad you enjoyed it – my blogging is still very much a work in progress, hope you continue to visit and comment


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