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Tom’s words

Escapades in etymology

By Tom Chatfield   January 2008

Ther e’s an unexpected poetry to be found in many etymologies. Take the word gubernaculum, which describes the cord that guides the descent of the gonads in a developing foetus. It’s a technical term, yet its literal meaning is simply “the helmsman,” from the Latin gubernator: one who carefully steers. Medicine, which boasts a linguistic tradition unbroken since the 4th century BC, is full of such riches: dauntingly clinical words whose literal sense recalls a time when the exploration of the body had more in common with literature or philosophy than with modern science. Epilepsy, for instance, is a serious…

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