or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Scientific Method

Observation: The medical word for a drooping eyelid (or, in fact, a drooping anything) is "ptosis".

Hypothesis: All English words that begin with "pt-" are from Greek.

Counterexample: Oh, yeah? What about "ptarmigan"?

Supplementary hypothesis: Although "pt-" words are Greek in origin, clearly someone made up or altered "ptarmigan" to look Greek, though it self-evidently isn't.

Conclusion: What, the English language isn't hard enough to spell already without people making it harder?

I was reading this posting about Paris Hilton's wonky eye on a really interesting website called Celebrity Cosmetic Surgery, and the blogger (a plastic surgeon himself, and not some uncredentialed hack like me) used the expression "eyelid ptosis" to refer to her condition.

"Ptosis" is obviously (to me) Greek: it comes from the verb "piptein", "to fall", which in turn is from the Indo-European "pet-", "to fly". This Greek word gave English most of its "pt-" words, including of course "pterodactyl" ("wing-fingers"), but also "achaeopteryx" ("ancient winged thing"), "helicopter" ("spiral wing"), and even "symptom", which we naturally think of as "symp-tom" but which breaks down to "sym-ptom", "something which falls together with something else"--that is, one of a collection of phenomena which, occurring all together, describe a disease or other event.

As soon as I had decided that "pt-" words must be Greek, my brain supplied me with "ptarmigan", which could not possibly be Greek. What to make of that?

The answer is that the word was originally (and unsurprisingly) the Scots Gaelic "tarmachan". When the word began to gain currency in English, someone decided that it would look better with a Greek-style "pt-" at the beginning, calling to mind the wingedness of "pteron", "wing", from which "helicopter" gets its second element (again, we want to break it into "heli-copter", but it's actually "helico-pter").

The other "pt-" words in English are reliably Greek and all from "piptein", even "ptomaine", which is a much newer word than you might think, having been coined near the end of the nineteenth century in Italian (as "ptomaina") from Greek "ptoma", "corpse", something that's fallen. This came from the belief that ptomaine poisoning was caused by the ingestion of the kind of putrefying matter (caused by the action on protein of bacteria which create such rank substances as "putrescine" and "cadaverine") that corrupts dead things, when in fact most food poisoning--more properly called "foodborne illness"--is caused by the ingestion of bacteria or other organisms themselves, which multiply in the body and cause illness.

Medical blogs, corpses, food poisoning--yeah, I'm still sick with this damned flu/cold/whatever the hell it is (the clogged sinuses have been joined by a cough, oh bliss). And although I am on the whole an enviably healthy person, I once had a cold for five weeks, so you can imagine that I just want this thing to go away. Thank goodness it's my day off.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had been hoping the you'd be on the serious mend, but obviously you are among those with the plague. OY!
So, I bring you an article you may not have read previously:
felting w/ less natural fibres ;)


Tuesday, March 11, 2008 10:49:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home