I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accountants, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my God and German to my horse.

                        Frederick the Great of Prussia



Many medical terms are neologisms, combing Greek or Latin roots – or both – to describe medical conditions or symptoms. Sometimes the result is rather tenuous, such as haemophilia – a lover of blood.

The word orthopaedic was coined by the French physician Nicolas Andry. It is derived from the French orthopédie, which in turn comes from the Greek orthos, meaning straight, or correct. This in turn is derived from Proto-Indo-European eredh. (Proto-Indo-European – or PIE – is an ancestral language of the Indo-European family, dating to roughly 5,500 years ago.) Paideia is the rearing of children, coming from the Greek genitive paidion – child. Andry’s use reflects the large number of childhood orthopaedic ailments he treated.

Interestingly, the American spelling orthopedic confuses the Latin root pedis (meaning foot, and so giving rise to words such as pedestrian and pedal) with the Greek paidon, used in the British (or Australian) orthopaedic.



Plaster appears in the written record by 1000AD, coming via the Vulgar Latin plastrum from the Greek emplastron, meaning a salve or plaster. (Vulgar Latin was the everyday speech of Rome, as opposed to literary and classical Latin). Plaster of Paris, made by calcining gypsum, was so called after the discovery of large gypsum deposits near Montmartre.

Newer casts (largely of fiberglass) may be lighter and more practical, but they lack the tactile delight of making a plaster cast. When Plaster of Paris is mixed with a bowl of water, heat is released and the plaster becomes supple, creating a bowl of white goo straight from childhood. Making a mess is a pre-requisite. After moulding it to the patient, the plaster slowly dries and hardens – perfect for signing.



Obviously not limited to orthopaedic problems, the word sick was in use by 900AD, and ail and sickness by 1000 AD. It is derived from the Old English soec, and, similarly, sickness from soecnesse. Ail is also Old English in origin, coming from eglan (to trouble, plague or afflict).

Sick features in various expressions, such as to be as sick as a dog, first recorded in 1705. Various animals found their way into in this expression, including horses, (despite being one of the few domestic animals which cannot vomit). Sick abed on two chairs is an American expression common in the 1930’s. Interestingly, the Australian sickie doesn’t appear in the written record until the mid 20th century.

For curing of sickies, Abracadabra first appeared in a 2nd century Roman medical text, (although as an incantation it is probably derived from the Semitic languages). De medicina praecepta, written by the Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, describes how a sick person should wear a piece of parchment inscribed with a triangular formula of the word, to act like a funnel to drive the sickness from the body:












Perhaps this should be written upon a cast to heal a broken leg?