When I use an evidence-based word . . .

March 10, 2016

Jeffrey Aronson, Honorary Consultant Physician & Clinical Pharmacologist

Jeffrey Aronson

1. Blogs and Logs

This is the first entry in a CEBM blog about medical philology. It seems natural then to look at the origin of the word “blog” and to ask what links blogs to logs.

The Sailor’s Word Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms (1867), compiled by Admiral W[illiam] H[enry] Smyth and revised for publication by Vice-Admiral Sir E[dward] Belcher, gives the first insights into the answer:

LOG-BOARD. Two boards shutting together like a book, and divided into several columns, in which to record, through the hours of the day and night, the direction of the wind and the course of the ship, with all the material occurrences, together with the latitude by obser-vation. From this table the officers work the ship’s way, and compile their journals. The whole being written by the mate of the watch with chalk, is rubbed out every day at noon.

The journals for transcribing the chalked contents of the log board were called log books, ship logs, or simply logs, of which two were commonly kept, a harbour log and a sea log. For an individual to be logged, “recording the omissions of an officer”, was a very serious punishment.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) logs the earliest recorded use of “log board” in Samuel Sturmy’s Mariner’s Magazine of 1669, but the shortened form “log” didn’t appear until the mid-19th century, and it wasn’t used until the start of the 20th century to refer to records other than nautical ones: the successive depths achieved in drilling a well (1913), the events on a lorry driver’s journey (1924), and details of radio and television broadcasts (1937). In 2013, the log at Abbey Road Studios was used to recreate a day in the life of the Beatles, 11 February 1963, when they recorded their first album “Please Please Me”.

Web logs emerged in the early 1990s, soon after the invention of the world wide web. Originally “a file storing a detailed record of requests handled (and sometimes also errors generated) by a web server” (OED), “web log” soon came to mean “a frequently updated web site consisting of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, etc., typically run by a single person, and usually with hyperlinks to other sites; an online journal or diary”. Or, as defined more simply in the Independent (2000), “a site where you post your thoughts whenever the muse strikes”. “Web log” jocularly became “we blog” and hence “blog”.

It is now 20 years since I started writing articles on medical words under the general heading “When I Use a Word” in the BMJ, when I recounted an amusing discussion during a ward round. I didn’t foresee that I would go on to generate over 100 such articles, in the BMJ and elsewhere. Nor did I anticipate the interest they would arouse. Few ever write to me about my forays into the worlds of adverse drug reactions or philosophy of science, but my words postbag is large. One correspondent wrote to ask if he might use my pieces as translation exercises for his Hungarian students. I can’t comment on the results—my Hungarian is too rudimentary (oh all right, non-existent). One article has even been anthologized, by Iain Bamforth, in a book in which I found myself rubbing shoulders with writers such as Dickens and Daudet, Kierkegaard and Kafka, Orwell and Osler (picture).

The front and back covers of “The Body in the Library. A Literary Anthology of Modern Medicine”, edited by Iain Bamforth (Verso, 2003)

Medical blogology is on the up: Pubmed lists over 360 papers with titles containing “blog*”: seven in 2000–4, 119 in 2005–9, and 182 in 2010–14; there were 57 in 2015 alone.

So in 2015 I started contributing When I Use a Word blogs to the BMJ, billed in the blog side-bar as “Jeff Aronson’s words”. Or to put it another way, I entered the blogmos, the blogiverse, the blogosphere. An earlier version  of this entry appeared on 30 January 2015. Now I am using the material, updating and revising where necessary, to blog on the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine website (cebm.net).

A blogoholic or blogomaniac is an overzealous blogger, often a single issue fanatic who writes about the same topic, day in day out, blogging it to death. I shall certainly avoid that, and blogorrhoea too, I hope. Instead, I aim for mind-bloggling [b]logodaedaly, evidence-based.


Special thanks to Kamal Mahtani for kind comments about the blog and for suggesting this project.

Jeffrey Aronson

About Jeffrey Aronson

Honorary Consultant Physician & Clinical Pharmacologist

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