Finding Meaning in Medicine

From learning about the “tough, spidery and tender mothers” of the meninges, to the “gate-keeping properties” of the pylorus (pyle = gate; ourus = guardian), I have had great fun exploring medical etymologies this past year. Medicine is a veritable treasure trove of word origins; it is a discipline chock full of fascinating etymologies and hidden stories. Behind every pathology, process or treatment, it seems, there lies a tale of epic proportions just waiting to be told. Here is but one:


Fascicles. Or, rather, “fasciculi”. The bane of medical students’ existence during MSK blocks (or at least, the bane of this medical student’s existence during his MSK block). We throw around the term “fascicle” with no great sense of gravitas. It is, after all, just a building block – a necessary sub-component – cut, and cut away again from a larger, more clinically significant whole.


A concrete subdivision of layer upon layer of fibers, made even more concrete under the magnifying lens of microscopy. But what about training our gaze on the abstract story of ‘fascicle’? What can be learned from putting the story of ‘fascicle’ under the microscope? What hidden story lies beneath this otherwise (largely irksome) anatomical division?


Deriving more proximally from Latin “fasciculus” – a small bundle, as of flowers, or letters – the term enjoys a fascinating journey through the history of language. The term’s movement through Latin saw the affixing of its current diminutive suffix “-ule” where it came to refer to a “small part of a work, published in installments”. Here, then, is my official call for us all to refer more appropriately to the Prisoner of Azkaban not as the third installment in the Harry Potter series, but rather, “the third fascicule”

Indeed, fascicule itself derives from “fasces” – which describes a “bundle of rods containing with an axe, with the blade projecting outwards.” In classical times, “fasces” was carried by those in power as a symbol of control over life and limb. The sticks symbolized the ability for power to punish: rods represented whipping; the axe head – execution. The term slowly came to be equated with “high office” and “supreme power.” From here, the term’s intricate relationship with the high office and supreme power of ‘fascism’ becomes much clearer. Indeed, the fascicle itself was the symbol of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.


How “fascinating” (which, fascinatingly enough, is a term that has less to do with fascicles, and likely more to to do with genitalia). But that’s another story for another time.


Etymology is the window into meaning. The words that occupy everyday medical parlance do not (and often cannot) exist in isolation from their historical context. They say that a good clinical history helps the physician arrive at a correct diagnosis about 80% of the time. In much the same way that a complete history is important to understanding a patient’s presenting condition, a working knowledge of (or at least a curiosity for) the history of the medical terms we use can help round out our understanding of the conditions and or anatomical structures to which we are referring.

Happy etymologizing! Or, perhaps more accurately, iatrologonomizing (that is, discovering the underlying rules and histories of medical terminology).


Kian Madjedi, Northern Ontario School of Medicine