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Interesting Etymologies 32 : Disease

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

"Hello again Word Lovers!" I hope you are well, as in this episode we are going to explore words surrounding being unwell, words for sickness and disease.

General terms:

Ease (disease) : Comes to us from Old French, aise, to mean comfort, pleasure. Believed to be from Latin ad iacens - lying at. ad - to +iacere - to lie, rest, but literally means to throw. something that has been thrown down, is something at ease. Obviously, Disease is the opposite of ease.

Ill : Emerges from Old Norse. illr to mean evil, bad; hard, difficult also stingy, but after that it is a dead end. We have no idea where this word illr comes from.

Sick : An old English word; seoc to mean "ill, diseased, feeble, weak, corrupt, sad, troubled". This comes from Proto Germanic seuka which is again, of uncertain origin.

Well (unwell) : Old English wel meant abundant, much. This word can be traced through Proto Germanic (wel), Old Norse, Dutch, Welsh (gwell - better), Latin (velle - to wish, will), Early English (willan - to wish), Old Church Slavonic (vole - well) to a PIE root of, you guessed it, wel - to wish, will .

Sore : In Old English we find the word sar - meaning painful. This has a wide distribution across Europe too with Proto Germanic saira - suffering, ill, Old Fresian sar - painful, Dutch zeer - sore, ache, Gothic - sair - pain, sorrow, travail, Old Irish saeth - pain, sickness with a PIE root of sai - suffering.

Specific terms

Botulism : Comes from the word for sausage, hardly surprising because it was normally contracted after eating sausages. The word from Old French Boele - intestines, bowels, innards (12c) is the precursor to our word Bowell. From the Medieval Latin - Botellus - small intestine, originally sausage from Oscan-Umbrian (The original languages of modern Italy that were usurped by Latin)

Cancer : From Latin for crab or creeping ulcer, translated from Karkinoss in Greek. Believe to be a descriptive word of the veins around tumours looking like the limbs of a crab. Cancer is a very old word in English but it was usurped by the French Canker until the 1600s when science began to return to the original word and Canker became a specific sore in the mouth. The PIE root is understood to be Karkro. This is a repetitive word so, a doubling of the meaning of Hard, so Very Hard!

Vaccine : Vacca - cow in Latin. The first vaccine was the use of cow pox to control small pox

Pox : A pock mark or Pocc mark is a small indentation in the skin caused by a pustule or blister. (pocc) This comes from Proto Germanic puh - to swell up which itself is from PIE root beu - to swell/blow. (IE9.2 Cricket & Football)

Salmonella : With vaccine taking as such a distinct route from cows, surely Salmonella emerges from Salmon? In a roundabout kind of way it is, as it is named after the man who isolated the infection, Daniel E. Salmon, an American vet who died in 1914.

Malaria : Spanish for Bad Air - Mal Aire

Tuberculosis : Like a tuber and Phitisis - a body that shrivels with heat has gone forward to mean any wasting disease.

Dengue & Ebola : Two words from Swahili : Dinga meaning a seizure or a cramp and Ebola is one of many diseases named after the place of origin.

Jaundice : From French for yellow - juane. This goes back to Latin galinus to mean green/yellow and effeminate. However the medical term is icterus, which like so much in medicine, is a Greek word (ikteros) . This was the name for a yellow bird, icteria. It was actually believed that the cure for this disease was to look at the Icteria.

Syphilis : The unlikely origin of this disease name was discussed in IE28 Fiction.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

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