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From the life of words, Part 3: the names of some skin diseases


The scourge of the Middle Ages was leprosy. No other disease filled people with equal dread. The words designating this disease vary. Greek léprā is a substantivized feminine adjective (that is, an adjective turned into a noun—a common process: compare Engl. the blind and blinds, with two ways of substantivization). It meant “scaly.” From Greek the word migrated to Latin, from Latin to Old French, and finally reached English. Like so many other names of diseases, leprosy highlights one symptom of the affliction (here, “scaly skin”). As we will see, Old English had a native name; leper surfaced in texts only in the fourteenth century, and leprosy in the sixteenth. Some other languages also did without borrowing. Thus, Russian prokaza (stress on the second syllable) means approximately “disfigurement,” while in Germany the social aspect of leprosy was emphasized: Miselsucht (misel– “miserable, from Latin,” and –sucht “disease”) and (the present day name) Aussatz “outcast,” both with unmistakable medieval connotations.

Leper with bell – Pontifical (c.1400)

But in the past, some Germanic speakers had a different word for leprosy. Since lepers appear in the New Testament, both the noun (leprosy) and the adjective (leprous) occur in the fourth-century translation of the Bible into Gothic. The noun was þrutsfill, that is, thruts-fill, a compound in which –fill meant “skin,” recognizable from its English cognate fell “skin, hide” (related to Latin pellis). Old English had þrust-fell; –fell, as just pointed out, has come down to our times unchanged. The forms in both languages are nearly identical, but Gothic has ts in the middle, while Old English has st. Consonants regularly play leapfrog, and there is a special term for it, namely metathesis. The question arises which form is original and which the product of alteration. The researchers who have studied the origin of those words traditionally gave preference to Gothic. As we will see, they were probably mistaken.

The most common explanation of the Gothic and Old English words depends on the existence of the Icelandic past participle þrútinn “swollen.” Its Germanic root can be seen in Engl. throat and throttle. If this etymology were correct, the Gothic-Old English name of leprosy would mean “swollen skin.” Swelling is not a prominent feature of leprosy, and I think the etymology is wrong, but it makes me think of the Old Icelandic manuscript called Morkinskinna, literally, “moldy, rotten skin.” Could this strange name, standing in opposition to Fagrskinna “beautiful skin,” the name of another manuscript, commemorate an epidemic of leprosy or have anything to do with the disease?

The Icelandic manuscript “Morkinskinna,” which means “moldy, rotten skin.”

Long ago, in the otherwise useless commentary on the language of the Gothic Bible, the author suggested that þrutsfill is related to English thrush, not the bird name, but the name of the disease affecting babies’ mouths. This suggestion was buried in a moderately thick volume, and no one seems to have noticed it. But I am almost sure that the forgotten author hit the nail on the head.  Although some English dictionaries repeat the old opinion that the origin of thrush is unknown, the unanimous conclusion of the leading Scandinavian scholars on this question is probably correct. The word seems to have come to English from some Scandinavian language. It surfaced in English only in the seventeenth century; yet a few Scandinavian words did turn up in written English so late. The Danish and Norwegian for thrush is trøske. The same word means “rotten wood,” and this is how leprosy in Gothic and Old English must have received its name: the reference was to rot, rather than swelling. Assuming that this idea is right, the Old English word, with its consonant group st in the middle, retained the initial form, while the Gothic form, with ts, underwent metathesis. The root of the Icelandic participle and its Old English cognate had a long vowel (ū), but, if the name of the disease has nothing to do with swelling, the vowel in the old Germanic words was short.

In Danish and Norwegian, the symptoms of thrush are sometimes associated with the name of the frog (frosk). The Gothic for frog is unknown, but Old Engl. frogga “frog” has been attested. If thrush and Old Engl. þrustfell are related and their etymon means “rotten,” frogs are, as they used to say in medieval Iceland, out of the saga. The Old Irish names of leprosy, trosc, is close to the Gothic and the Old English ones and especially to thrush ~ trøske, but Polish trąd “leprosy,” occasionally cited in this connection, has hardly anything to do with it (the letter with a hook under it designates a nasal vowel, so that the root must have been trand or at best trund, but þrush– never had n in it). The bird names thrush ~ throstle are not related to any of the words discussed above. They have wide connections in and outside Germanic, and their basis is probably onomatopoeic.

Read gum

Read gum is also known as gum rash and tooth rash, probably because it tends to occur at the time of dentition. But, unlike thrush, this eruption affects the skin, rather that the gums or the palate of infants. The Neo-Greek name of red gum, scrophulus, literally “a girdling disease,” from a verb meaning “to turn, twist, twine,” quite appropriately, contains no reference to the mouth either. It seems that red gum is a folk etymological alteration of redgound, perhaps itself an alterations of Middle Engl. radegound “? a running sore,” recorded once, in 1377. Redgown(d) has been known from texts since 1440, and red gum since 1597.

Whether rade in radegound is some form of red is unclear, but –gound certainly means “puss, poison,” a word almost extinct in English dialects, though its doublet with a historically long vowel (gound) has survived. In Old Germanic, gund was widespread. For example, Gothic gund glossed Greek gággraina “gangrene” (read Greek gg as ng). The plant name groundsel is still another casualty of folk etymology, for its original form was gunde-swylige, from gundæ-swelg(i)æ, “presumably from gund ‘pus’…+ swulg-, swelg– ‘swallow’, the etymological meaning being ‘pus-absorber’, with reference to its use in poultices to reduce abscesses; on this view, the later Old English form in grund– is due to association with ground, as if taken to mean ‘ground-swallower’, with reference to the rapid growth of the weed” (so The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, with the abbreviations expanded).

Groundsel, the plant whose name fell victim to folk etymology.

The great Danish philologist Otto Jespersen once said that a linguist is never bored even at the dullest meetings, for, however uninteresting the presentations might be, one could always follow the speakers’ accents and take notes. The same is true of etymologists. The words may refer to distasteful realities, but a study of their origin cannot bore or disappoint.

Otto Jespersen, a taciturn man, was never bored.

Image credits: (1) “Leper with bell” Originally published/produced in circa 1400., Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2 and featured image) Codex Frisianus, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Common Groundsel-first fruits” by CarolSpears, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Otto Jespersen” by Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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