Middle English Medical Terminology: The Body
Members Only: The Middle English Body
The Old English (OE) lexicon contained many words representing the various parts of the body, but generally only limbs and the most basic or familiar organs were named (Norri Entrances 109). Terms for body parts found in OE with obvious present day English descendents include heorte (heart), fót (foot), arm, mūth (mouth), and blǽdre (bladder). Variations on the OE word ears (buttocks) eventually became the Middle English (ME) ars and the present day English arse or ass. In ME, with the development of medical learning across the European continent, the lexical fields of medicine and of anatomy underwent expansion. However, what constituted a lexeme denoting a body part in ME was, in some instances, considerably different from what might constitute one today. For instance, some ME medical writers considered water and blood body parts, while others strictly warned against the inclusion of such fluids in the lexical field and petitioned for the exclusion of anything but “members” (Norri Entrances 106).
Latin for the Literati: The Learned Professional
as the Christian church was linguistically concerned with the maintenance of
Latin as its official language, medical writing in the ME period reserved Latin
for its canonical works. English
physicians depended heavily on a learned knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Arabic
in order to both read and write medical texts and, as such, presented
themselves as privileged possessors of knowledge (Hogg 154). Texts written in Latin were inaccessible to
the uneducated masses and medical knowledge was therefore restricted to an
elite few. As a result, medical
terminology in English was constrained by this linguistic barrier: terms for
newly discovered or more technical body parts remained enshrined in the Latin
language. English was peripheral to
written culture in general until the thirteenth century, and was used in
primarily casual domains (Pahta and Taavitsainen 10).
Linda Voigts has identified a tripartite
classification of medical writing in medieval
Medicine for the Masses: The Rise of the Vernacular
Latin continued to be used by universities for centuries, the vernacularisation of science and medicine began to
seriously develop by the thirteenth century (Pahta
and Taavitsainen 10). Because only a small portion of those involved in medicine in
Re-Membering: The Creation of New Terminology
The Adoption of Foreign Words:
French and Latin were the foreign languages with the greatest influence on ME anatomical vocabulary. However, it is often difficult to distinguish whether or not a word came into the language via French or via Latin because French descended from Latin. Norri has stated that medical terms have an indisputable French origin because words such as croupe (buttocks) have no Latin equivalent, and words such as fester have undergone sound-change from Latin typical of French (Entrances 111). Bengt Ellenberger, conversely, has argued in favour of a Latin etymology for ME “mots savants” because of the fact that medieval libraries consisted primarily of Latin books. The argument as to the origin of anatomical terms, however, may not be that black and white. Terms that are of ambiguous French or Latin origin include organ, hymen, and testicle. Old Norse and Dutch also contributed a few terms to the lexicon of anatomy during the period 1400-1500, such as rumpe (buttocks) (Norri Entrances 114). The French and Latin influence on the vocabulary of anatomy peaked between 1250 and 1400, but began to dwindle afterward (Norri Entrances 112).
The Adaptation of Non-Medical Terminology:
In ME, non-medical words were often modified so as to meet the need for new terms to describe anatomy in the vernacular (Norri Entrances 115). Anatomical vocabulary metaphor was often used to compare a body part to an object of similar shape. In OE, the pupil of the eye was supposed to be a globular solid body, and was therefore known as the “apple” of the eye. In late ME, the word ball, as in eyeball, came to convey the same idea (Norri Entrances 116). The use of ball in reference to the testicle can first be seen in 1325 (Oxford English Dictionary, “ball,” n.15.b.).
The Coinage of New Terms:
Affixation and compounding were used in the formation of new terms for body parts, as they were for the creation of many words in ME. The use of suffixes was more common than the use of prefixes with the suffix –er found in many names of body parts such as hyngers (testicles, hanging parts), grinders (molars) and helpers (bones of the upper arms) (Norri Entrances 121). The prefix fore- can be seen in forefinger and foreskinne (Norri Entrances 120). Compounding, or the formation of a word through the combination of two or more other words, was used to structure the terminology of a variety of anatomical features. One example of a compound where neither part of the word is a medical term is lic-pot, a term referring to the index finger and to the habit of licking the pot clean once a meal has been completed (Norri Entrances 125).
Present Day English:
Many ME anatomical terms proved to be impermanent and short-lived, fading after the middle of the sixteenth century (Norri Entrances 130). Lexical loss resulted primarily from the failure of new medical lexemes to catch on; many adoptions, adaptations, and coinages quickly disappeared from the language. Terms that made only a brief appearance and fell into disuse by 1550 include tentigo (clitoris) and cristallidos (lens of the eye) (Norri Entrances 131). Establishing the reason for the failure of a particular term to become a permanent facet of the language is often difficult. Explanations offered by Norri include phonetic change, an abundance of terms for the same body part, and the fact that some coinages were “semantically untoward” (Entrances 134). In present day English, synonymous terms have often survived in different registers. Buttocks, rump, seat, posterior, derriere, and rear, among other terms, all refer to the same part of the anatomy and range from more technical terms to slang. The formation of new terminology for body parts has continued in present day English. The term buns, for example, is a twentieth century adaptation of a non-medical term comparing a body part (the buttocks) to an object of similar shape.
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