Monday, November 11, 2013

Oh, the Horrors of Etymology

In the same way that kicking over a rock allows you to see what squiggly, slimy things may be hiding beneath it, tracking down the etymology of words so often takes you into weird parts of history that you may never see otherwise. For example, today I looked up the etymology of the word barber. It goes back to the Latin barba, “beard,” it turns out, but the entry also offers this grim look into early healthcare: “Originally also regular practitioners of surgery, they were restricted to haircutting and dentistry under Henry VIII.”

isaac koedijck, “barber-surgeon tending a peasant’s foot,” via wikimedia
And I even knew that already, but seeing it laid out like that — plainly, matter-of-factly, as if it were no big deal that the same guy who cuts your hair should also cut your skin and dig teeth out of your gums — gave me a shiver. “Yeah, you’re your problem here is that you have too much blood. Here, sit down. This will take a while, because I will have to cut you open a lot.”

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