Monday, March 13, 2006

The Meaning Behind Words

Etymology - 1: a history of a word; 2: the study of the sources and development of words

"Why bother with etymology?" some may ask. Because it can help you learn terms more easily and remember more.

I find that once I know the origin of a word, it helps solidify it's meaning and context. As well, if other new terms with similiar roots come up, then I can easily decipher their meaning and remember them more easily. I usually find their origins at or I just Google it. (All links in this post will open in a new window, unless I screwed something up.)

This post is going to be heavy with scientific terms, my apologies to those who can't deal.

Let's jump into some examples:

Endo means inside/within and exo means outside/external (Greek). So if I talk about an endometrium, it's the inner lining of the uterus - shed during menstruation. If I talk about an exothermic reaction, it is a reaction where heat leaves, or goes outside of the system. You can guess what endothermic means.

I thought this next one was cool when I realized it - which was this morning, incidentally. For some reason I always forgot what an osteoclast was. I knew it had something to do with bone: osteoporosis, osteology, things like that. But the -clast part always threw me. Then I realized the word iconoclast shares the same suffix. If you don't know, an iconoclast is someone who tries to destroy popular ideas/images. More to the point: They take icons and try to break them. If you look up the etymology of iconoclast, you'll see pretty much the same thing. With this we can guess the function of an osteoclast: It breaks down bone. And we'd be correct.

Cephalopods are animals like squids and octopi. Cephalo- comes from the Greek kaphalo meaning head and pod means foot. And that's all these animals really consist of: a head and some modified feet.

How about encephalon? It is something in your head: Your brain!

An important clinical suffix is -itis, usually denoting some inflammation. So if someone has encephalitis, what are they suffering from? You guessed it.

Even if you knew all of these terms already, that is not the point. The point is that you can use the terms you know, or ones you will learn, to more quickly absorb the meaning of new terms or pre-existing difficult terms.

So, for you smartasses out there, I'll end with one final example:


A little intimidating, eh? I'll give you a quick breakdown of the small components, with that you'll probably get an idea of what it means. Oh, you smartasses don't get to look.

Hemo- (or haemo- as the Brits spell it) has to do with blood.
angio- has to do with blood vessels (or lymph vessels).
-blast is usually a cell that produces the thing in front of it. An osteoblast forms new bone. So you can guess what an angioblast is. (By the way, that's why osteoclast was sort of tricky to remember: osteoblast and osteoclast differ by one letter!)
-oma is a tumour of some variety. Like melanoma: a tumour from a type of skin cancer that originates in melanocytes (pigment cells).

Do you think you have a feeling for the definition? Really think about it, then check it out.

Pretty close weren't you? Yeah, etymology is awesome.

So look those words up! Our modern age means that etymology is only seconds away. If you have Firefox, you can use the pre-installed search bar. If you don't have it, then go here and install the one from



At 4:31 AM, Blogger Smita said...

It was fun reading your blog...keep blogging...keep it up...



Post a Comment

<< Home