Middle English Medical Terminology: The Body

Erin Ellerbeck

Copyright 2005


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

Just 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 England, naming surgical texts, remedybooks, and academic treatises as the three principal genres of the time. 


Medicine for the Masses: The Rise of the Vernacular

Though 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 England were trained in universities, there was a demand to disseminate medical knowledge through ME language vernacular texts.  The need to express new ideas in English then arose in a field that had been dominated by Latin, and the rhetorical potential of the vernacular required improvement (Norri Entrances 101).  Examining chronological layers of medical terms between OE and the sixteenth century, Juhani Norri, a major contributor to the analysis of the ME lexical field of anatomy, has determined that words representing body parts in ME continued to be outshone by Latin and French words for the concepts until the fourteenth century onwards, when there was a proliferation of medical texts in the vernacular.  Examples of words borrowed from French during this transitional period are loines (loins) and secretes (genitals).  Julie Coleman has made similar findings to those of Norri in examining the English lexical fields of love, hate, sex, and marriage.  Between the years 1375 and 1500, lexical expansion in the field of anatomy exploded, and terms that established themselves as part of the vernacular include artery, muscle, and nerve (Norri Entrances 109).  The earliest surgical text in English that was not the result of a translation from Latin was written by an anonymous London surgeon in 1392 (Norri Entrances 102).  Among ME translations of Latin original academic treatises was a translation of Englishman Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ Latin De proprietatibus rerum (1398), which included chapters dealing with body parts (Norri Entrances 102).   


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.


For Further Reading

Coleman, Julie. “The Chronology of French and Latin Loan Words in English.” Transactions of the Philogical Society, 93 (1995): 95-124.

Corner, George W. Anatomical Texts of the Earlier Middle Ages. Washington: The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1927.

Ellenberger, Bengt. “On Middle English mots savants.” Studia Neophilologica, 46 (1974): 142-150.

Field, E.J. and R. J. Harrison. Anatomical Terms: Their Origin and Derivation. Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1947.

Hogg, Richard, Ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol III. 1476-1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Loewenstein, David, Ed. The Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

McConchie, Roderick.  Lexicography and Physicke: The Record of Sixteenth-Century English Medical Terminology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Norri, Juhani. “Entrances and Exits in English Medical Vocabulary, 1400-1550.”Medical and Scientific Writing in Late Medieval English. Eds.Päivi Pahta and Irma Taavitsainen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 100-143.

--. Names of Body Parts in English, 1400-1550.  Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, Humaniora 291. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennicae, 1998.

Pahta, Päivi and Irma Taavitsainen.Vernacularisation of Scientific and Medical Writing.” Medical and Scientific Writing in Late Medieval English. Eds. Päivi Pahta and Irma Taavitsainen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Roberts, Efrangeon. Medical Terms Their Origin and Construction. London:William Heinemann Medical Books, 1971.

Voigts, Linda Ehrsam. “Editing Middle English Medical Texts: Needs and Issues.”Editing Texts in the History of Science and Medicine: Papers Given at the Seventeenth Annual Conference on Editorial Problems, University of Toronto6-7 November 1981. Ed. Trevor H. Levere. New York and London: Garland. 39-68.