Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
For this post, our Operations Assistant Steven Dugan gives us a healthy dose of early medical terms. Enjoy the read, and thank you, Steve, for your contribution!
In the novel “Old Yeller,” Travis’s beloved dog gets sick, which results in Travis shooting the dog to put it out of its misery. We know by that climactic moment that poor Yeller has rabies, but the illness is referred to in the story as hydrophobie [sic]. The Greek word “hydrophobia” is the historic name for rabies, but it actually describes one of its symptoms. Once the disease is advanced, the sufferer may actually fear water, so much so that even a drink of water gives one the irrational fear of drowning. Louis Pasteur didn’t develop a vaccine for the disease until the mid-1880s, so it is unknown how much understanding there was of rabies in 1860s Texas, the setting of the story. The use of the word “hydrophobia” was certainly very common.
The origins of disease names and medical terms consist of historic Latin and Greek words, which describe the particular malady of a certain part of the body, some of which are used today. For example, the medical root word “cardio” is from the Greek word, kardio, which means “of the heart.” In Latin, the word is kardia. Therefore, myocardial infarction (heart attack) describes the blockage of blood and oxygen (from the Latin infarctus) to the heart muscle (myocardii, also Latin). Rabies is also a Latin word, meaning madness, and based on another symptom of the disease.
Modern, everyday illnesses and conditions also get their names from these Greek and Latin terms. Have you ever suffered from catarrh (head cold)? What about the grippe (the flu)? The Spanish word for the flu or influenza is, in fact, la gripe. We’ve all had dyspepsia (indigestion or heartburn) from time to time, haven’t we? And who hasn’t had lumbago while driving home from work? No, it isn’t a horrible growth somewhere. It’s actually lower back pain, suffered in the lumbar region of the spine.
The next time you hear those old medical terms as you watch your favorite medical drama, write them down and look them up online or in that old-fashioned book called a dictionary. And when that television doctor asks the nurse for a sphygmomanometer, you’re going to know that sphygmos is the Greek word for pulse and manometer means to measure—a patient’s blood pressure!