or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fat Chance

Okay, we're going very deep inside a word, so buckle up.

My grandmother always pronounced "cholesterol" as if it were spelled "chloresterol". I don't think I ever corrected her (or at least I hope I didn't).

Now, "cholesterol" is a very interesting word. From the sound of it, you'd think that the core of it is "ester", which is a chemical compound, but that's a mere accident of pronunciation. (An ester is, according to Dictionary.com, an "inorganic salt...formed from an organic acid and an alcohol", which I'm sure makes sense to all sorts of chemists but leaves me at a bit of a loss, which is fine by me.) In fact, "cholesterol" is formed from two pieces, "chole-" and "-sterol".

The first half may look familiar to you if you've heard of cholecystitis, which is an inflammation of the gall bladder. Gallstones are also called "cholecysts". So "chole-" means "gall", somehow, obviously. It is in fact from the Greek word "chole", meaning "bile", which is produced by the gall bladder, and "bile" and "gall" are two words for the same thing--a substance used in the digestion of fats, produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder until it's needed.

A sterol is a fatty compound which serves various purposes in the human body: the two most famous sterols are cholesterol and steroids, which aid in muscle growth, as you probably already knew.

Enough chemistry. Let's get to the Indo-European.

"Sterol" comes from IE "ster-", "stiff" or "solid", because sterols are thick and waxy. (That's why cholesterol in excess is such a hazard to the health: because it packs up the arteries.) "Stern", as in "strict", is a relative ("the back part of a ship" is unrelated; it's a cousin of "steer"), and so is "stark" ("severe"), as well as "starch", for obvious reasons. Most unexpected: "starve", to die and become stiff, and also "torpid", to be afflicted with another kind of stiffness, that of bored immobility.

"Chole-" comes from IE "ghel-", a root with many, many offspring in English. Its original meaning is "to shine", but it naturally became associated with gold, the shiniest of the easily found metals, and so the root led to many words with shiny golden overtones, some of which you'd never guess. "Gall" itself should be obvious at this point, I guess, because gall is yellowish, as is "yellow" itself, not to mention "arsenic" (derived from an Iranian word, "zarna-", "golden"). "Fulvous" is a member of the family, too, Shiny words in this family include "gild" and "gold", "gleam", "glimmer", "glitter", "glint", "glisten", "glow", "glaze", "glass", "gloss", and "glare". "Glad" and "gleeful"--both "shining with joy", in a sense--are also offspring. So is "gloat"--to beam with smug satisfaction.

Finally, the prefix "chlor-", from Greek "khloros", "green-yellow", is a descendent of "ghel-" and therefore a relative of "chole-", which means that my grandmother, completely unbeknownst to her or to me, was actually in the right neighbourhood.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember from my course on etymology another "chole" word- Melancholy, from melania chole- black bile, one of the humours.

Saturday, April 12, 2008 6:23:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Right you are. I didn't even mention it because I had already written about "melancholic" (though it was a few years back).

Saturday, April 12, 2008 7:48:00 AM  

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