‘Perhaps if we all learned Latin we’d better understand our doctors’

May 10, 2019
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Perhaps if we all learned Latin we'd better understand what our doctors were talking. Source: Getty Images about

What sometimes amazes me is the sheer number of diseases that doctors can list in their lexicons of knowledge these days, the illnesses that we hear mentioned in TV programs etc., many of them regarding diseases or genetic faults that I have never even heard of and are often specific to one tiny part of the body, every one of them given a name. What’s more, virtually all the illnesses and injuries of the human body have names that are in Latin, like most other branches of science. I’m not entirely certain why this is so, though I have been told it’s because for some reason Latin is the only way they can be described accurately.

Take for instance the very successful common buttercup, which most of us spend a lot of time trying to remove from our lawns, despite their quite attractive little golden blossoms, that kids like to hold under their chins, proving whether they like butter or not. The brighter the reflection, the more you liked butter — it had nothing to do with the sun reflecting from the petals of course. Anyway I digress, the ‘proper’ name of the common buttercup is apparently Ranunculus acris (the Ranunculus lappaceus in Australia). The name Ranunculus is Latin for ‘little frog’ and it’s supposed to signify that many of the species are found near water, like frogs. Buttercups contain ranunculin, which breaks down to a toxin called protoanemonin, a chemical that can cause dermatitis and vomiting.

I digress… However, writing that last paragraph has given me some sort of an epiphany; I have suddenly realised that two words of Latin have described the flower while my feeble attempt to do the same in English took about five lines of typing! Of course, now that I suddenly understand, I can appreciate that the same must apply in the medical profession, and the other sciences, because Latin always seems to be able to encapsulate a whole wealth of meaning into one word.

When I commenced this daft piece I was actually only concerned with the fantastic number of ailments we can suffer from and how many of them now also have completely successful cures, brought to us by yet another branch of science, the chemists. They also use Latin to describe the composition of their concoctions and look how that list has grown in the last 60 years or so. When I was a boy there were plenty of patent medicines available, made by the earlier pharmacists, most of them relying on poppy derivatives for any success they might have had, helped with generous portions of cocaine and alcohol. Family doctors, with perhaps a little more scientific awareness to assist them made up potions of their own, and the rest was down to simple pain killers like aspirin. Frighteningly, one of the main treatments that the medical profession seemed to like in those days, was tobacco, which was advertised as a cure-all for many ailments — especially for soothing a sore throat. Not only frightening, but amazing too!

The discovery of new complaints is shooting ahead at a truly alarming rate these days, showing an almost logarithmic growth as time goes by. I sometimes wonder if a part of this growth is because chemical companies invent a new drug and then need to invent a new complaint to be treated by it, but I’m just a cynical old man, so take no notice of me!

One thing that occurs to me is how many complaints did the Romans suffer from? Obviously all the illnesses we have now were around then, but a vast percentage must have been completely unknown as a separate condition. For instance, could the Romans distinguish between lung cancer and TB, or heartburn and a heart attack, or appendicitis and severe colonic blockage? It would be very interesting to find out just how much people in those far off days knew about the human body and its complaints; they were such clever people when it came to engineering, building and water management, I would just love to know how far their medical skills matched up to the others. And did the Romans use Latin to describe their worlds of science, just as we do now, or was their language for this sort of thing something else entirely?

Are you or is someone you know a member of the medical profession? Have you considered how medicine has evolved over time?

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