History of the Word

. . . for Chris Nunnink, M.D. Oncology.

You have been advised to check on a lymph node which feels somewhat enlarged. You have been to your specialist who has examined and taken a biopsy sample for examination. So you will be at a waiting stage until the material is evaluated and you are called to come in and see the doctor.

It might take your mind off the situation by reading this paper on the curiously complex history of the word Lymphoma and the lymph node itself, where the word came from and what it originally meant. Words have a special history of their own, and this one is complicated and historical enough to engage your mind while waiting for the meeting with the doctor. He may ask for a scan or a biopsy sometime next week, during which interval you might want to investigate the history of this now ominous word.

But in case you are just curious about the word and have not faced the idea of cancer, I might offer a word of advice here. It is important to check your body all over for any signs of an enlarged lymph node, which is an early warning to see an oncologist. Only by getting familiar with all the parts of the body under the skin can a person detect a change. The critical areas are the sides of the neck from ear down to collarbone; the armpits with arm down and fingers of other hand looking for anything hard; the groin area from the pelvic bone down into the fold of the thigh. Getting a signal early makes the difference about which of the four stages of lymphoma you have, and if there is any suspicious at all, go to the oncologist right away. A second set of signs might be a general weakness of the body, fatigue and possibly as an early warning sign an unusual weakness with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which may be a pre-stage of a cancer condition. Awareness of your body is the essential first step on which everything depends. Thirty years ago Hodgkins would have meant death in a year, but with the new bio-chemical techologies, there are excellent chances for survival..

Etymology of the Word

There are many people who are convinced that things are right or wrong on an absolute scale. From them come continual questions about a definition, about a scientific fact and eventually about a spelling of a word. If you try to tell them there are no absolute levels of rightness, they become confused and even angry, since they won't believe you. After all, weren't we raised up with questions from our school days based on checking the R(ight) or the W(rong) box on the exam sheet? If you got the right box, you got a point on the exam, while too many wrongs and you failed, possibly no HS graduation and no hope of college. So Right and Wrong are there after all , they have teeth and apply equally in spelling, in science and in religion. At least so the people whose lives are devoted to Exactitude do believe.

I recently became interested in a word which is much in the public ear. Everybody is concerned about cancer and the word Lymphoma, for which a google search turns up 20, 000,000 items in 1.2 sec. This is now a common word, and we should be able to count on it being spelled correctly wherever it appears. For a much used word in medical science, wouldn't it seem reasonable to have a standard spelling, after all?

Reasonable or not, that is not the case. I am surprised find in a medical treatise the word spelled "lympoma" throughout a technical paper so it cannot be a mis-spelling. At first I wondered about this, but then it occurred to me that half the doctors in this country are now of foreign birth, and many of them would have trouble with the digraph "-ph-" which incidentally by some curious reasoning is understood to be pronounced "f". Whether doctor or nurse, if you don't have the "-f-" sound in your language, you will not be able to say the word Lymphoma easily.

This will take documentation on the global scene to be convincingly proved. But after settling the score with the "-ph-" pronounced "-f-", we might think about the "-y-" in the first part of the word, and ask what it really means. "No problem, just pronounce it as an "-i-", that will do it!" But if just an iota, why not write it that way?

I find our test word Lymphoma written as "limpoma" in medical papers from Uzbekistan, Italy and Brazil, and a bit of checking shows that many many languages do not use the Roman font characters "-y-" or the "-ph-" at all. But they have a long tradition of substitutions suitable to their printing of books and documents, and although a computer can call up almost anything , it takes special code and is a real bother to be sure it is what you want to read. So this raises the problem of right and wrong again. What is right here may be unacceptable over there, and if this bothers your sense of emotional stability, that is just too bad. It seems that the old concepts right and wrong are going to be disappearing from the fast expanding global world, even now as we speak, and we might as well be prepared.

I was trained as a Philologist and have always been fascinated by etymologies and the curious routes by which words have come into their final form. So it was natural for me to try to find the source for the medical word "lymphome" which goes back to the noun "lymph" as a watery bio-active fluid which we find in the lymph nodes throughout the lymphatic system of the mammalian body. As a good start, I go back to Latin which is often a source for medical words, and I find in the authoritative Oxford Latin Dictionary the Latin word "lymph" a note that Varro the 1 c. BC pseudo-linguist (De Lingua Latina: 7,87) thought was this was "dis-similated" from the Greek "numphe" which is "a bride, a girl; a forest girl or fountain spirit". We now know a great deal about linguistics and there is no way that a Greek "n" can be dis-similated or changed over to a Latin "-l-". There are thousands of cases of sound change, many rare and unusual, but this one never happens, so I think I may be permitted to use the word "wrong" in this case. Yes, old Varro was just wrong.

But Latin is just one language in a series of the Prae-Italic Dialects which had spread throughout the Italian peninsula. Now it so happens that a sister language Oscan has on a stone inscription a dedication to the Water Spirits, reading "diumpais" (a dative plural in Oscan), interpreted as " A votive inscription to the Waterspirits". But why is there a "d" here, when our word "lymph" has a clear "-l-"? Well, there is a well known "-d/l-" alternation by which we have words like Old Latin "dingua" for later "lingua" for the tongue, and remember that Ulysses stands for Odysseus in Greek. It has been posited that behind the attested early forms of Old Latin "lumpa / limpa" , there should have been a Faliscan dialect word *limpa, which explains perfectly this Oscan cousin-word Diumpais.

What arises from this hodge-podge? Well, to sum up, Latin originally had a word "lumpa / limpa" for water, from which the Romans derived the adjective "limpidus" for clear as water as in English. But what does this LIMPA have to do with Lympha, which with its different orthography looks like a very different word?

We have to go around the barn to answer that one. The Romans were language snobs, they were impressed by the reputation of the what they learned in school in their Greek Literature courses, and often felt that by adding a Greek sounding inflection to a Latin word, they could make it somehow more elegant. As an example. the older Latin word "pulcer" meaning beautiful, seemed more beautiful as "pulchra" especially when used for a fair lady, spoken at close range in her ear with the breathy sound of a Greek chi. And "silva' the forest, must have seemed more magical when spelled "sylva", a change retained in English "sylvan".

We have some of this same linguistic weakness in English. Isn't French cuisine somehow more inviting and interesting than American Country Cookery? Doesn't tortellini al dente sound tastier to a hungry palate than noodles at Hank's Eatery? And this pertains to our cars, the major love affair of the American public, which are resplendent with Italian names like Gran Sport, Monaco and Gran Turismo. Who would buy a car from Ford called the Detroit, or from Japan if it had the name Tokyo on the hood?

Back to the snobby Romans who were unhappy with their dumpy word "lumpa" for the purest of spring water. How about some connection with those lovely and sexy little forest Nymphs of Greece, perhaps skinny-dipping in the forest fountains? Isn't that what we would like our ponds and pools to be like? Then if the connecting word would be "lympha", we might as well have the "-y-" which an old Roman philologist invented to represent the pursed-lip sound of the pure Greek -u-. I can see something trickling down from the rocks into a pool of purest liquid, I can almost hear it whispering as it glides over the stone and down in a miniature waterfall. Yes, it is a nice sounding word, and we can be proud of it. No more of that limpa in the forest glades, we will all say together "lympha".

Was it just in the interest of easy pronunciation in certain languages that lymph began to be simplified to limpa ? Or was it a reverse turn in the course of linguistic history, by which the word began to slide back to its roots in the language of third century B.C Latin, to assume its ancient and original configuration. Isn't the old Latin "limpa" the same thing as the modern "limp-" as in the variant "limpoma", a spelling now springing up as a in many treatises. Could it be that words have a hidden tendency to revert to their original and true form, that language has a Regression Factor as well as its well-known process of Evolution.

There are always self-appointed fringe linguists who see word connections which you will not find in the dictionary. These are the clan of the Folk Etymologists. They do not believe in things like Verner's Law or the regularity of sound change, they follow the way words look and sound which is quite enough for their maneuvers. Isn't it a matter of common sense, they will say, that the Bridegroom is the attendant or "groom" who grooms and guides the bride into a state of marriage? But if you try to say that it is really the AS "guma" or OHG "gomo" for Man, still found in modern German as "Brauti-gam" or brides-man, you will get a stare of disbelief and a short "Well, who says so. . . .?"

But then you will not be surprised to find that a fellow of this persuasion, who has just read the above disquisition, will aver that the lumps which after appear on the neck in a case of Lumphoma give the disease its name. "Didn't you just prove that there is some old Latin word limpa or lumpa? It sure ounds like the same thing as a lump, and that is good enough for me!". So to test him out, I ask if he has heard of reports of patients coming down with lymphoma as a result of swimming in the great gray-green greasy Limpopo River, as noted by A. A. Milne, in the northern region of South Africa. What do you think of that, I am asking him, and he replies after a moment's consideration: "Well maybe. . . maybe."

Well, that is enough, you have read this prefatory and precautionary statement on the disease in question but I think you will also be in a better position to deal with it as a medical eventuality if you know something historical about this alarmingly cancerous word. Now that you are linguistically prepared, you can go ahead with confidence on your own, knowing that you probably know a great deal more about the history of the word Lymphoma than your doctor does. At this point you can go on with his complex and multifarious treatments, where he knows incomparably more than you can possibly even imagine.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College