When I Use an Evidence Based Word . . .

April 22, 2016

Jeffrey Aronson, Honorary Consultant Physician & Clinical Pharmacologist

Jeffrey Aronson

3. From roots to words

Earlier this year I went to Sam Wanamaker’s Globe Theatre in Southwark for a meeting of the Oxford–Globe Forum for Medicine and Drama in Practice, as part of the commemorations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, expertly organized by Shakespeare scholar Professor Laurie Maguire, herself a Trustee of the theatre, and her colleagues, in which they brought together Shakespeare experts, actors, and doctors.

I gave a talk about the historical development of medicines regulation, relying heavily on R G Penn’s paper in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, “The state control of medicines: the first 3000 years”. Having only 15 minutes to cover the subject, I restricted myself to the last 2000 years. I finished with what were not perhaps wise saws but certainly modern instances, describing some of our recent work on drug withdrawals because of adverse drug reactions discovered after marketing. For part of the talk I discussed apothecaries and their relations with physicians, particularly during the period of Shakespeare’s life. And investigating the origins of the word “apothecary” gives an object lesson in how English words have descended from Indo-European roots.

When in 1786 Sir William Jones noted the similarities between words in Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, he hypothesized that they had “sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.” He was right, and his observation led to the discovery of the proto-language, “proto-Indo-European”, the theoretical language from which many modern words in English and other Indo-European languages are thought to have developed. A few of the many correspondences are shown in the table below; the asterisks before the Indo-European roots signify that they are theoretical, a convention that I usually omit.

Indo-European Sanskrit Greek Latin English
*bher bhárāmi pherō fero I bear
*bhrater bhrátar phratēr frater brother
*ieug yugám zugon jugum yoke
*neuos návas neos novus new
*pəter pitár patēr pater father
*reudh rudhirás eruthros ruber red
*tre tráyas treis tres


Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959) lists about 2000 Indo-European roots, which give rise to several thousand English words. How has this multiplication arisen? It has come about firstly because the main vowel in each Indo-European root can have several different forms, by the effect known as ablaut, a German term that was introduced by the 19th century philologist Jakob Grimm and which means an off sound or graduated sound, as in the English noun song and the corresponding verb forms sing, sang, and sung.

The basic form of Indo-European roots was the so-called e-grade form, which contained a short e or a long ē. That could change into the so-called o-grade form, with a short o or a long ō. The vowel could also disappear or be replaced by a neutral vowel sound called a schwa, after the Hebrew vowel of that name, the so-called zero-grade form. The schwa, represented in print by an inverted e (ə), typically occurs in weakly stressed syllables. There are two examples of the schwa in “apothecary” (/əˈpɒθɪkəri/).

Furthermore, each ablaut form can have suffixes and prefixes added. Other changes include shortening, nasalization by the insertion of the letter n, reduplication, or compounding with other forms. Each resultant form can by itself give rise to several different words.

Take, for example, the Indo-European root in its lengthened e-grade form, DHĒ, meaning to set or put down, to make or shape.

DHĒ gives us deed, a thing laid down or done, as well as indeed, misdeed, and the obsolete alms-deed; as Queen Margaret says of Richard Duke of York in 3 Henry VI, “Murder is thy alms-deed—Petitioners for blood thou ne’er putt’st back”.

The lengthened o-grade form of DHĒ is DHŌ, which gives us do, doing, and done.

Add the suffix TIS, giving DHĒTIS, and with a slight consonantal shift you get fact, via the past participle factum of the Latin word facere, to do, giving many related words, such as facile, facility, factitious, difficult, and those ending in -faction.

Add an M and you get DHĒM, which gives deem, theme, and Themis, the Greek goddess of justice and law, that which is laid down. An anathema (Greek ἀνάθημα) was originally an offering, a thing laid out to propitiate the gods. DHŌM gives doom and doomsday, the day of judgement, and words ending in -dom, indicating a state in which one is set up, like boredom, earldom, freedom, halidom (holiness), kingdom, martyrdom, and wisdom. A leechdom is an Old English word for a remedy, or more specifically a medicine, a leech originally being a physician. Abdomen is conjecturally from the Latin abdere, to put away or conceal.

The zero-grade form of DHĒ is DHƏ. Put the two together, DHĒ-DHƏ, and you get the Greek τιθέναι, to put or place, which yields the trilogy of dialectical materialism, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, as well as many other words ending in -thesis, such as diathesis, ecthesis, epenthesis, hypothesis, metathesis, orthesis, parenthesis, prosthesis, and spondylolisthesis. A thesaurus or treasure is something that is laid down carefully.

Add a K to the lengthened e-grade form and you get DHĒK, which gives theca (Greek θήκη), a sheath that encloses an organ, and apothecary, from the Greek ἀποτιθέναι to put away and hence ἀποθήκη a storehouse.

Apothecaries originally purveyed non-perishable commodities—spices, drugs, comfits, preserves, and the like. They were members of the Guild of Grocers, classed with pepperers and spicers, but they gradually focussed on drugs, and by about the middle of the 14th century an apothecary was one who prepared and sold drugs for medicinal purposes.

In 1518 Henry VIII founded the College of Physicians, and in 1540 he promulgated The Pharmacy Wares, Drugs, and Stuffs Act, empowering the physicians to inspect apothecaries’ wares and destroy them if defective. This paranoid control continued during Shakespeare’s life, which may explain his portrayal of apothecaries as purveyors of poisons. Shakespeare rarely mentions apothecaries—only four times in the whole canon—but poisons feature on three of those occasions. And in only one play, Romeo and Juliet, does he actually portray an apothecary (picture). The apothecary whom Romeo approaches, seeking poison, is reluctant to sell—it is illegal to do so in Mantua, on pain of death. Romeo points out that the apothecary is poor and famished and will probably die anyway. The apothecary accepts his 40 ducats: “My poverty but not my will consents”. Contrast Cymbeline’s physician, Cornelius. The Queen asks him for poison, ostensibly for animal experiments, but actually intending to kill Innogen. He supplies a sleeping draught: “I do suspect you madam. But you shall do no harm”.

Nicholas Nickleby and Smike play Romeo and the apothecary (Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter XXV)

Nicholas Nickleby and Smike play Romeo and the apothecary (Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter XXV)

The apothecaries applied to Queen Elizabeth to have themselves recognized as independent practitioners, but she would have none of it. They finally succeeded in 1617, a year after Shakespeare’s death, when The Worshipful Society of the Art and Mistery of Apothecaries was founded under James I. The title of the Society implied, no doubt, that a bit of hocus-pocus did not go amiss when your remedies had little or no efficacy. Besides, most things get better spontaneously. Rivalry between the apothecaries and the physicians continued nevertheless, even after the landmark Rose case in 1704. Nowadays medical murderers tend to be doctors or nurses, rather than pharmacists. This is as portrayed by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but not Shakespeare—quite the reverse. Although the misanthropic Timon says “Trust not the physician / His antidotes are poison”, Shakespeare never actually portrayed physicians as poisoners. As a physician, I find this very comforting.

A shorter version of this blog was previously published at http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2016/01/29/jeffrey-aronson-when-i-use-a-word-apothecaries

Cite as Aronson J (2016): From roots to words. CEBMJ https://www.cebm.net/use-evidence-based-word-3/ DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4716.5842

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