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Hazards of medical terminology from classical languages: it’s all Greek (and Latin) to me!
  1. Terence Stephenson
  1. Institute of Child Health, University College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Terence Stephenson, Institute of Child Health, University College London, Great Ormond Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK; t.stephenson{at}

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Henrik Wulff noted that the language of medicine offers intriguing challenges to linguists.1 The oldest written sources of western medicine are the Hippocratic writings from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Greek medicine was later adopted by the Romans and in the first century AD, Aulus Cornelius Celsus translated many Greek medical terms into Latin. However, Peter Frankopan2 describes the lazy history of civilisation as ‘Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment’ and, as John Wade said, ‘the rest is history’. Or was it? In reality, the first great civilisations were established 5000 years ago in the Indus valley and Mesopotamia with sophisticated sewage systems which would not be matched by European public health measures until John Snow linked cholera to the water supply in the mid-19th century. There are ancient Chinese texts documenting the medicinal effects of herbs from 2700 BC.3 The most famous centres of learning after the eighth century AD, when Europe was still in the Dark Ages following the collapse of the western Roman Empire, were the Islamic schools in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba. The texts studied in the Islamic schools were those of the Greek scientists and philosophers and between 750 and 900 AD most of the works of Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle were translated into Arabic.

Around 1000 AD, Ibn …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.