Etymology Saves the Day

whiskey with iceEtymology. The study of word origins. My hero.

Say what?

Okay. Suppose you’re at a party. You’d like to start a conversation. Who could resist you as you raise your glass—and one eyebrow—and ask, ”Know where the word whiskey comes from?” Heads turn your way. You swirl your glass. “Usquebae. Usque means water. Bae means life. Usquebae. Whiskey. Water of life. To your health!” Who knows what that bit of etymology might lead to.

Not exactly heroic, you say?  Okay. Someone calls you nimrod. You could throw a punch. Or—knowing that this name meant “mighty hunter” for more than 2,000 years (until Bugs Bunny used it to taunt Elmer Fudd)—you could thank the heckler and move on. Conflict averted.

Still not convinced?

Three months ago, I had knee surgery. Arthroscopy. Miraculously routine. My knee was supposed to recover quickly. After a couple weeks, though, it still hurt. I got into physical therapy. My PT team and I did all kinds of things to that knee. We bent it and stretched it. We walked it up steps and down steps. We iced it. We ultrasounded it.  “Shouldn’t take long,” the therapists said. “Couple more weeks, good as new.”

Bakers CystA couple weeks turned into a couple months. A lump developed behind my knee. The PT gang called it a baker’s cyst. They told me that it would go away when the general swelling went down. “Give it time.”

More weeks went by. “Doing a lot of baking?” my PT pals would ask. I had not done any baking.

“What might cause this thing?”

“It just happens sometimes.”

After three months of PT, I went back to the doctor. “You have a baker’s cyst,” he said. “Do you know why it’s called a baker’s cyst?”

“Did a Dr. Baker discover it? I can think of lots of things I’d rather pass my name on to.”

“Baker’s cysts are called baker’s cysts because bakers get them. Because they spend a lot of time standing.”

A lot of time standing! A couple days before my knee surgery, I had installed a standing station at my desk. For all these months, I had spent hours every day standing at my computer. Good for my duff. Bad for my knee.

After that doctor visit, I went home and lowered the computer station. For the next week, I worked sitting. The baker’s cyst all but disappeared. Etymology was my Florence Nightingale. Word origins to the rescue!

A fellow tech writer, Graeme Wilson, informs me that I was misinformed about the origin of the term baker’s cyst. Well, knock me down. So much for the thesis of this post. My true hero is the interactive Web (and Graeme). Anyone interested in the rest of the story can find it in the comments below.

This post first appeared December 18, 2013, in my TechWhirl column, “Word Wise.”

11 thoughts on “Etymology Saves the Day

  1. And there I thought red wine was the “water of life”. 🙂

    Fun post. I am now on the lookout for a reason — any reason — to drop “nimrod” into casual conversation. Which part of the word means hunter: nim or rod? I have a theory … but just curious.

  2. Monique, Thanks for your comment. I’m with you on red wine.

    As for nimrod, here’s what Bryan Garner has to say (Garner’s Modern American Usage p. liii):

    “That word has always denoted a hunter. It derives from a name in Genesis: Nimrod, a descendant of Ham, was a mighty huntsman and king of Shinar … But few people today capitalize Nimrod, and fewer still use it to mean ‘great hunter.’ The word has depreciated in meaning: it’s now pejorative, denoting a simpleton, a goofy person, a dummy. Believe it or not, we can blame this change on Bugs Bunny, the cartoon character created in the 1940s. He is so popular that TV Guide in 2002 named him the ‘greatest cartoon character of all time.’ Bugs is best known for his catchphrase ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ But for one of his chief antagonists, the inept hunter Elmer Fudd, Bugs would chide, ‘What a moron! [pronounced like maroon] What a nimrod! [pronounced with a pause like two words, nim rod].’ So for an entire generation raised on these cartoons, the word took on the sense of ineptitude—and therefore what was originally a good joke got ruined … the traditional sense is becoming scarcer with each passing year.”

  3. Hi Marcia,

    I work as a technical writer in the health field. Our convention is to drop the ‘s from diseases named after a person. Baker’s Cysts are in fact named after a Dr Baker, and although bakers may get them, I can find no reference to this as the origin of the name. Etymology: William M. Baker, British surgeon, 1839-1896.


  4. Graeme, Thank you for this info. You don’t know how helpful it is, as the darn cyst turns out to have lingered after all, and complications have developed. So much for what I thought I knew. Can you please point me to more (reliable) info about this type of cyst?

  5. Hi Marcia,

    Here are a couple of resources we link to:

    Wikipedia has quite a good overview:

    With regards to grammatic constructions of disease names, the dropping the ‘s is debated in various circles. Our clinical editors have adopted convention of the dropping ‘s (so Baker cyst), but I know some of our SMEs (doctors or surgeons at the local hospital) are against this. Here are a few resources: (scroll down a little to ‘Apostrophes for Eponyms’)

    Wikipedia is inconsistent in its use of ‘s for disease names:


  6. Thanks again, Graeme, for setting me straight. I’ve read these articles with interest.

  7. Pingback: Word Wise: Etymology Saves the Day | TechWhirl

  8. As I read your story and the PTs said, “doing a lot of baking lately?” I thought, “they really mean to ask whether you stand a lot.” I imagine that you didn’t get it at the time because they were using a joshing tone. I think this is an interesting instance of lack of intonation making something clearer! (and an unpleasant instance of really poor medical care… I’d be filing a complaint if I were “in your shoes”!)

  9. Nancy, Good point about intonation. Here’s the rest of the story. When I asked my PTs if I should spend less time standing, they said that standing shouldn’t create a problem. They were just playing with words. After reading Graeme Wilson’s comment (above) and reading up more on the Baker cyst, I suspect that standing didn’t create the problem after all.

  10. Thanks for the details. Not that this salvages my impression of the PT field (formed from personal experience). Ah well, I’ll drop the off-topic now…

Comments are closed.