or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Away With You

Here a few scary sentences from a Slate.com book review:

She was diagnosed with chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy—a disease in which rogue antibodies present in one's blood plasma attack the myelin sheath, the protective and connective covering of one's nerves. For four years, Manguso suffered numerous episodes of escalating paralysis that could be reversed only through an arduous process called apherisis: Her veins were drained of the offending plasma and infused with new. (Left untreated, the disease progresses to the diaphragm, leading to suffocation and eventual death.)

Fast on the heels of the horror I felt at consider her medical condition was the realization that "apherisis" was a most interesting word that I had never heard before, but that I could decipher; more on that in a minute. And hard on the heels that realization was the strong suspicion that "apherisis" could not possibly be the correct spelling of the word.

It isn't, either. There are hardly any words in English that end in "-isis". "Crisis" is the only common one; "phthisis" is the only near competitor, and scarcely anyone has ever heard of that. More on that in a minute, too. The ending "-esis" is a lot more common, so the smart money is on the word in question being spelled "apheresis", which is just what it is. The writer should have caught this. A copy editor would have, but there don't seem to be any in the building.

Just looking at "apheresis", you can tell that it's Greek, and if you know a little etymology but not enough, you can incorrectly work out its origin, as I did. Since it means "to carry the blood away (and then return it)", it certainly seems as if it ought to come from the verb "pherein", "to bear" or "to carry", which shows up in quite a few English words including "amphora", "pheromone", and "metaphor". I got it wrong, though. It's actually from the prefix "ap-", the same as Latin "ab-", "away", plus the verb "hairein", "to snatch", "to take". Same basic idea, I guess, but the wrong verb.

"Phthisis" is an old term for consumption, which in turn is an old turn for pulmonary tuberculosis; "phthisis" is from Greek "phthiein", "to decay". Whenever you see a word containing "-phth-", such as "naphtha" or "diphthong", you can be sure it's Greek in origin.


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