Precious Bodily Fluids

I. The ancient Greek word “spora” (σπορά) meant “seed”. The modern English word “spore” doesn’t quite mean “seed”, but it does mean one of the stages in the reproduction cycle of fungi, such as molds, yeast, or mushrooms, and of some non-flowering plants, such as ferns. The ancient Greek “sporadên” (σποράδην) means “spread or scattered about”—that is, dispersed randomly, the ways seeds are dispersed when you scatter them by hand. The English word “sporadic” means “occurring at irregular intervals” or “scattered”. The ancient Greek word “diaspora” (διασπορά) means any kind of scattering or dispersion. The English word “diaspora” usually refers to the scattering of a people, as in the Jewish Diaspora or the Black Atlantic Diaspora.

These three Greek words—“spora”, “sporadên”, and “diaspora”—derive from the o-grade form of a Proto-Indo-European root “sper”. The e-grade of this root gives the Greek verb, “speirô” (σπείρω), which means “to scatter seed”. In ancient Greek, the suffix “-ma” turns a verb into a noun, so the root “sper-” plus the suffix “-ma” produces the Greek noun “sperma” (σπέρμα), which means “seed”, and Greek “sperma” is the origin of the English “sperm”, which of course also means “seed”, sort of. Other examples of “-ma” words in English are “dogma” (from “dokeo”, “to think”) or “drama” (from “drao”, “to do”). Some English derivatives in “-ma” drop the final “-a”, as in the words “spasm” or “chasm” or “schism”—or “sperm”. (I discussed words in “-ma” in “Vote-a-rama”, back on 12 March 2021.) I don’t know of a zero-grade form of “sper” in Greek, but the zero-grade form “spr” shows up in Germanic, for instance in the words “sprawl”, “sprout”, and “spread”. So “sperm”, “spore”, “sporadic”, “diaspora”, “sprawl”, “sprout”, and “spread” all derive from the same root.

II. The English word “phlegm” derives from the ancient Greek word “phlegma” (spelled φλέγμα in Greek letters), which meant “fire, flame, heat”, also “inflammation” and “phlegm”. In English the word “phlegm” is pronounced “flem”—the initial “ph” is pronounced “f” and the “g” isn’t pronounced at all. I’ll talk about the “ph” first and then get to the missing “g”.

It’s easy to think of English words spelled with “ph” pronounced “f”, such as “photograph”, “pharmacy”, “philosophy”, and so on. These “ph” words derive from ancient Greek, and in general a word in English that starts with “ph” comes from Greek. You can also find “ph” pronounced “f” in the middle or the end of a word, as in “ophthalmology” or “graph”; in a few compound words not derived from Greek (such as “hophead”—meaning a drug user or a lover of beer), the “p” and the “h” are pronounced separately. But usually “ph” is pronounced “f”.

All of these words with “ph” pronounced “f” derive from ancient Greek words spelled with the letter “phi”—Φ or φ in the Greek alphabet. Nowadays we usually pronounce “phi” as “f”, but in classical Greek, the kind of Greek spoken by Socrates and Sophocles, it was pronounced as a “p” sound with a little puff of air. This puff of air is called “aspiration” (I discussed aspiration at greater length in an earlier post— “The Letter P”—back on 26 March 2021). In ancient Greek there were two different “p” sounds—an aspirated “p” with a little puff of air, φ, and an unaspirated “p”, without that little puff of air, Π or π.

Over time Greek pronunciation changed, and φ came to be pronounced as an “f” sound rather than as an aspirated “p”. If you say “p” and then “f” you can tell that the sounds are made almost the same way; both are pronounced in the front of the mouth, but “p” (called a “stop”) is produced by a popping of air through the lips, while “f” (a “fricative”) is produced with air escaping through the upper teeth and the lower lip. When the Romans first started to write Greek words in the Roman alphabet, they wrote “phi” as “p”—the Greek name Φίλιππος (“Philippos” in English letters) was transcribed as “Pilipus”—so the Romans must have heard Φ as a kind of “p” sound. By the first century AD, however, the Romans sometimes wrote “phi” as “f”—a graffito in Pompeii transcribes the Greek name Δάφνη as “Dafne” rather than “Daphne”. Evidently the pronunciation of φ had changed from a stop “p” to a fricative “f”. But the usual Roman practice was to transliterate Greek “phi” as “ph”, where the “h” represents aspiration.

The Greek noun “phlegma” is derived from the Greek verb “phlego” (φλέγω, meaning “to burn”) plus the little suffix “-ma” that the Greeks used to turn a verb into a noun, as we saw above in the discussion of “sperm”. If you drop the final “-a” (just as “sperm” dropped the “a” in “sperma”) you get “phlegm”. English speakers don’t pronounce the final combination “gm”, so the “g” isn’t pronounced, but in “plegmatic” you can say the “g”—the “g” goes with the “phleg-” part and the “m” goes with the “matic”. (In the Latin word “flamma”, which is closely related, the “g” has become assimilated with the “m”.)

The Greek verb “phlego” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root “bhel”. The initial “bh-” in this root represents an aspirated “b” sound, which we don’t have in English, or in Greek or in Latin; aspirated (or “murmured”) “bh” is found in the ancient Indic language Sanskrit and also in the modern languages Hindi and Urdu, which are descended from Sanskrit. This Proto-IndoEuropean “bh” shows up in English and German as “b”; it shows up in Latin as “f”; and it shows up in ancient Greek as “ph”: thus the root “bhrater” (“brother”) shows up as English “brother”, German “Bruder”, Latin “frater”; the ordinary ancient Greek word for “brother” is “adelphos”, but the root “bhrater” can be seen in other Greek words, such as “phratra” (φράτρα), which means “a clan, a phratry” (that is, a group of people related to each other), and also “phrater” (φράτηρ), which means “a member of a phratry”.

The Greek root “phleg-” comes from the e -grade of the Proto-Indo-European root “bhel”; the o-grade shows up in the Greek word “phlox” (φλόξ), which means “flame”, and in the English word “phlox”, which is the name of a flower, so called because of its bright color. The spelling “phlox” comes from the root “phlog-” plus the nominative ending “s”; the final “g” in the root and the “s” ending combine to make “x”. (Likewise the “x” in the ending of the Latin word “rex”, which really stands for “reg-s”—you can see the root “reg” in the word “regal”.) This o-grade “phlog” also shows up in the word “phlogiston”—chemists in the 18th century thought that there was something in flammable materials which made them flammable, and they named this material “phlogiston”; later on, when chemists figured out the chemistry of burning they realized there was no such substance, so the word “phlogiston” is now the relic of an obsolete theory.

This little etymological journey tells us that phlegm was originally associated with fire and burning. The ancient Greeks thought phlegm was produced by a burning in the body—a fever. Phlegm is one of the humours, that is, the substances postulated by ancient medical theorists. Different theorists listed different numbers of these humours, but the best-known system had four: blood, bile, black bile, and phlegm. Diseases were caused if these humours were out of balance, and your temperament was caused by the particular mixture of your humours. The word “temperament” originally meant something like “the mixture of elements in a compound”—temperament was the balance of elements in a mixture, and especially the balance of the elements in a person’s normal or habitual mental constitution. A good temperament means a good balance of the humours, that is, a good balance of a person’s mental habits. The Greek or Latin names of the humours have given us English words for four temperaments: an excess of blood produces a sanguine (optimistic) temperament (from the Latin “sanguis”, meaning “blood”); an excess of bile produces a choleric (angry) temperament (from the Greek “khole”, meaning “bile”); an excess of black bile produces a melancholic (sad) temperament (from the Greek “melankhololia”, meaning “black bile”); and an excess of phlegm produces a phlegmatic (calm or apathetic) temperament. We still say that someone is phlegmatic, but I don’t think we associate a phlegmatic temperament with a lot of phlegm.

2 thoughts on “Precious Bodily Fluids

  1. Fascinating stuff, Professor Clark. In order to pay attention to these details in language, one is lucky to have to learn the art of reading slowly.


    1. Thanks so much. There should be contests in reading slowly. I bet I can take longer to read this than anyone….


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