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Introduction: Origins of Medical Terminology

ByMari Robbins, Janet Wetherfield, Anthony Yates

The early Greeks were the first to develop the distinct role of physician, and it is from their language that many of our current medical terms are derived. With the rise of the Roman Empire, physicians spoke Latin as well as Greek. Graeco-Roman medicine was based on a system of theoretical beliefs related to the pneuma (soul and breath of life), the psyche (personification of the soul) and the soma (the material body). Early beliefs also incorporated the 'humoral' theory based on the properties of four bodily fluids, known as haima (blood), phlegma (phlegm or mucous), chole (yellow bile) and malaina chole (black bile). The relative proportions of these fluids were thought to determine one's temperament, and disease was attributed to disturbances in the fluid balance: excess of blood caused a sanguine temperament; too much phlegm a cold, unemotional temperament; yellow bile, a hot temper; and black bile, ill-humour.