The Etymology of Medical Terms 3



















Cancer is one of the most talked about and most devastating diseases affecting man. Even today it causes fear, and is  occasionally referred to as the big C. with the euphemism”after a long illness” still sometimes used in obituaries. However, this is rapidly changing with the increase in knowledge and advances in treatment and survival rates, and nowadays the word does not cause the room to go silent, as in the past. I thought that it would be interesting to discuss the etymology of the word.

Some believe cancer to be synomous with modernity, and believe it to be a modern disease. This could not be further from the truth as the earliest written record regarding cancer is from 3000 BC in the Egyptian Edwin Smith Papyrus, in which a breast cancer is described. Cancer has existed throughout history. In ancient Egypt they believed cancer was caused by the Gods.

Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) described several kinds of cancer, referring to them with the Greek word καρκίνοςkarkinos (crab or crayfish). This name comes from the appearance of the cut surface of a solid malignant tumour, with “the veins stretched on all sides as the animal the crab has its feet, whence it derives its name”. In the times of Hippocrates it was believed that the body was composed of four fluids (The Humours): blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, and that an excess of black bile in any given site in the body was the cause of cancer.






Galen stated that “cancer of the breast is so called because of the fancied resemblance to a crab given by the lateral prolongations of the tumor and the adjacent distended veins”.Celsus (ca. 25 BC – 50 AD) translated karkinos into the Latin cancer, also meaning crab and recommended surgery as treatment.







(Engraving with two views of a Dutch woman who had a tumour removed from her neck in 1689)

So the word cancer comes from Old English cancer “spreading sore, cancer” (also canceradl), from Latin cancer “a crab,” later, “malignant tumor,” from Greek karkinos, which, like the Modern English word, has three meanings: crab, tumor, and the zodiac constellation (late Old English), from PIE root *qarq- “to be hard” (like the shell of a crab); cf. Sanskrit karkatah “crab,” karkarah “hard;” and perhaps cognate with PIE root *qar-tu- “hard, strong,” source of English hard. 

In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, it became more acceptable for doctors to dissect bodies to discover the cause of death. The German professor Willhelm Fabry believed that breast cancer was caused by a milk clot in a mammary duct. The Dutch professor FRancois de la Boe Sylvius, a follower of Descartes, believed that all disease was the outcome of chemical processes, and that acidic lymph fluid was the cause of cancer. His contemporary Nocolaes tulpbelieved that cancer was a poison that slowly spreads, and concluded that it was contagious.

The physician John Hill described tobacco snuff as the cause of nose cancer in 1761. This was followed by the report in 1775 by British surgeon Percivall Pott (below) that cancer of the scrotum was a common disease among chimney sweeps.

percivall pott








With the widespread use of the microscope in the 18th century, it was discovered that the ‘cancer poison’ spread from the primary tumor through the lymph nodes to other sites (“metastasis”). This view of the disease was first formulated by the English surgeon Campbell de Morgan between 1871 and 1874.

The meaning “person born under the zodiac sign of Cancer” is from 1894. The sun being in Cancer at the summer solstice, the constellation had association in Latin writers with the south and with summer heat, and Cancer stick for “cigarette” is from 1959. And the political ‘war’ on cancer began with the National Cancer Act of 1971 (in the United States) under Nixon’s (Tricky Dicky) presidency but that ladies and genetlemen is “another story”. Thanks for listening and, as always, comments are welcome if not compulsory.

One thought on “The Etymology of Medical Terms 3

  1. Pingback: The Etymology of Medical Terms 3 | medicalenglish

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s