This week we will look at words whose origins whose origins lie in a scientific mistake. Most of them will be medical words.
We used one such word in our last quotation in the "bird words" theme. Here's the first known English usage of that word, dated 1743:
[In Italian, an epidemic of disease was called an influenza, on the belief that it was caused by the astrological influence of the stars. In 1743 an epidemic began in Italy and spread throughout Europe. The Italian term was taken up in English to name the specific disease in that epidemic.]
vitamin – any of a group of compounds each of which is, in small quantities, essential in the diet: they are needed for life, but the body cannot synthesize them
Funk coined the word vitamine, from Latin vita life + amine.
(An amine is a compound in which one or more of the hydrogen atoms in ammonia is replaced by something more complex.)
Scientists knew that several diseases were caused by a dietary deficiency, but did not know chemical nature of the deficient compound. Funk happened to be working with a disease (beriberi) caused by the lack of a particular amine, and he wrongly assumed the necessary compound, in all deficiency diseases, was an amine.
– Casimir Funk (1912)
The criticism usually raised against Funk's word Vitamine is that the termination "-ine" is one strictly employed in chemical nomenclature to denote substances of a basic character, whereas there is no evidence which supports his original idea that these indispensable dietary constituents are amines. The word has, however, been widely adopted, and … it would be difficult and perhaps unwise to eliminate it altogether. The suggestion is now advanced that the final "-e" be dropped, so that the resulting word Vitamin is acceptable under the standard scheme of nomenclature adopted by the Chemical Society, which permits a neutral substance of undefined composition to bear a name ending in "-in”.
– J.C. Drummond (1920)
The chief symptom of a certain disease, in men, is a mucus discharge from the [ahem] "male organ". It was thought that the discharge was semen. Hence the name, from Greek gonos seed + rhoe flow, stream. The OED defines this word as being the name of the discharge, but we know it as the name of the disease.
gonorrhea – an inflammatory discharge of mucus from the membrane of the urethra or vagina [OED]; a certain disease causing such a discharge
An early quotation, from OED:
– J. GERARD (1597)