The Etymology of Medical terms 2


In my recent post about Etymology I said that I would introduce new terms on a regular basis  and as I had some suggestions from a follower of the blog I decided to investigate into the words.

The words are “Placebo” and Caesarian section” .





Placebo comes from the Latin “placebo”, meaning ” I shall please” from the translation by St Jerome ( 347-420 AD), and his translation of the bible –

” I will please the lord in the land of the living” ( Psalm cxiv:9). From this comes the name given for the rite of the Vespers of the Office of the Dead, a prayer made for all souls in purgatory in All Souls Day ( November 2nd).

In a medical sense it was first recorded in 1785 and in 1811 it was noted as ” a medicine given more to pelase than to benefit the patient”. And thus the word has been used widely in this context since then; in fact placebos were widespread until the 20th century. In 1903, Richard Cabot, and American physician, who was important for his advances in clinical hematology said that he was brought up to use Placebos but that he ultimately concluded  ” I have not yest found any case in which a lie does not do more harm than good”.  And nowadays, in 2011 Harvard Medical School started a Program in Placebo Studies – Program in Placebo Studies .




The Lex Caesarea (imperial law) of (715–673 BCE) required the child of a mother dead in childbirth to be cut from her womb. And there is speculation that the Roman dictator Julius Casear was born by the method now known as C-section. However, this is apparently false as Aurelia Cotta, Caesar’s mother, lived long enough to watch his triumphs and advise him on policies, and although caesarian sections were performed in Roman times there is no record of the mothers ever having survived.

The term has also been explained as deriving from the verb caedere, to cut, with children delivered this way referred to as caesones.Pliny The Elder refers to a certain Julius Caesar (not the famous statesman, but a remote ancestor of his) as ab utero caeso, “cut from the womb”, a godly attribute comparable to rumours about the birth of Alexander the Great.

This and Caesar’s name may have led to a false etymological connection with the ancient monarch. Notably, the Oxford English Dictionary does not credit a derivation from “caedere”, and defines Caesarean birth as “the delivery of a child by cutting through the walls of the abdomen when delivery cannot take place in the natural way, as was done in the case of Julius Cæsar”.

Some link with Julius Caesar, or with Roman emperors in general, exists in other languages, as well. For example, the modern German, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch,Swedish, Turkish and Hungarian terms are respectively Kaiserschnittkeisersnittkejsersnitkeizersnedekejsarsnittsezeryan, and császármetszés (literally: “Emperor’s cut”).The German term has also been imported into Japanese (帝王切開teiōsekkai) and Korean (제왕 절개 jewang jeolgae), both literally meaning “emperor incision”.

Finally, the Roman praenomen (given name) Caeso was said to be given to children who were born via C-section. While this was probably just folk etymology made popular by Pliny the Elder, it was well known by the time the term came into common use.


My thanks go to Chiara Barrattieri, a technical translator working in Rezzato, Italy. Thanks very much Chiara for your suggestions. I would be delighted for more. All the best, and until the next post.

4 thoughts on “The Etymology of Medical terms 2

  1. Pingback: The Etymology of Medical terms 2 | medicalenglish

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