• Yaniv Moshkovitz

Arabic Medical Terminology: Development and Evolution


A lot has been written about the significant role of Medieval Islamic physicians in the preservation and development of ancient Greek medicine. By the time Islam reached its golden age, Islamic medicine had transformed and revolutionized ancient Greek medicine, which marked the evolution from Hippocrates, the 'father of medicine', to Avicenna, the 'father of modern medicine'. Just like their Greek predecessors, Arab physicians named organs or medical conditions based on their physical characteristics, but sometimes had different ideas in mind. Here are a few examples:

Pancreas:

The word 'pancreas' comes from the Ancient Greek word pankreas, which translates to 'all' (pan) and 'flesh' (kreas). Greek physicians saw the fleshy, homogenous texture of this organ and named it accordingly.

In Arabic, 'pancreas' is nowadays mostly transliterated to بَانكرِيَاس, but it has an original Arabic name as well, which is مُعَثكَلَة – Mu-ath-kala. This name is derived from the word عِثكَال – Ith-kal – which translates to a cluster of dates. Arab physicians named this organ Mu-ath-kala to reflect that its shape resembles that of a cluster of dates.

Psoriasis:

The name 'psoriasis' can be traced back to Ancient Greek through Late Latin. It literally means 'being itchy'. Itchy, painful skin is indeed one of the prominent symptoms of this autoimmune disease.

Arab physicians also had in mind one of the most prominent symptoms of this disease, but the one they thought was worth noting was the scaly plaques. Psoriasis is called صَدَفِيَة – Sadafia in Arabic, which is derived from صَدَف – Sadaf – seashell. What is evident here is that in each language another symptom was regarded as the most prominent, and in Arabic the scales became seashells.

Psychosis:

This term is used to describe a mental state characterized by a loss of contact with reality and an inability to think rationally. It is comprised of two words: 'psyche' – Modern Latin (from the Greek psykhe – 'mind') and the suffix 'osis' (from Greek), which means 'abnormal condition'. So 'psychosis' literally means 'abnormal condition of the mind'.

In Arabic, the corresponding term is ذُهَان – Thu-han, and here is why: the word ذِهن – Thihn means 'mind'. Now bear with me: in Arabic there are verb forms, which serve as molds to which we "pour" root letters. Some of these molds are designated to specific semantic categories. For example: if we take the root letters ص ف ر S F R and "pour" them into the mold A _ _ a_ we get A s f a r, which means 'yellow'. Indeed, A_ _a_ is the mold (or verb form) for colors: H M R -> A h m a r – 'red'; S W D -> A s w a d – 'black'.

Since Arabic is so rich, it actually has a mold for diseases, which is _ u _ a _. If we "pour" the root letters of 'mind' – ذ ه ن TH H N into this mold, we get Th u h a n, so it is actually 'a disease of the mind' or 'psychosis'.

Schizophrenia:

This term is relatively new (coined in 1910 or 1911). It describes a mental disorder that may be characterized by intellectual deterioration, social isolation, disorganized speech, delusions, and more. The term 'schizophrenia' is comprised of two Greek words: 'schizo' (split) and 'phrene' (mind), so it literally means 'a splitting of the mind'.

The corresponding Arabic term is فُصَام Fu-sam. The root letters of this term are ف ص م F S M, and one of the meanings of the verb فَصَمَ fa-sa-ma in the past tense is 'split or cracked'. If we "pour" the root letters F S M into the mold used to name diseases (as explained under 'psychosis') _ u _ a _, we will get F u s a m. So we can see that both languages indiacte this condition involves the splitting of something; while the English term tells us explicitly what is being split, the Arabic term only tells us this condition is a disease.

Staphylococcus:

This name relates to a group of spherical bacteria commonly found on the skin and hair as well as the noses and throats of people and animals. It was coined in 1882 and comprises two words: 'staphyle' (Greek), which means 'bunch of grapes', and 'coccus' (Modern Latin), which means 'spherical bacterium'. So the name 'staphylococcus' literally means 'a group of spherical bacteria shaped like a bunch of grapes'.

The corresponding term in Arabic is مُكَوَّرَة عُنقودِيَّة Mukawara Unqudia. Unlike the previous terms, the Arabic translation comprises two separate words, which reflect the meaning of the two words that make up 'staphylococcus':

The word مُكَوَّرَة Mukawara literally translates to 'coccus'. The root letters ك و ر K W R can form words that describe sherical objects; for example, the word كورَة Ku[w]ra means 'ball'.

The word عُنقودِيَّة Unqudia means 'of or like a bunch' (Unqud عنقود means 'bunch'). So this is an example of a medical term in Arabic that is a literal translation of the English term.

More to come...

Do you know what the difference between spoken and literary Arabic is? Click here to find out; you might be surprised...

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