Saturday, November 06, 2010


As he was driving near Munson Medical Center, Carl noticed a sign advertising prosthetics, and he wondered about the word. It comes from a Greek verb meaning “to place before.”

Prosthetics refers to the replacement of missing or defective parts of the body by artificial substitutes. The artificial replacement itself is called a prosthetic device or a prosthesis.

But I find it fascinating that the word was given that medical application only in 1706. Before that time [1550], it was a grammar term signifying the addition of a letter or a symbol to a word. George William Kitchin’s A Historical Grammar of the French Tongue gives this explanation:

§ “The letters added to the primitive word may be either (1) prosthetic, that is to say, put at the beginning of a word; (2) epenthetic, or put in the body of a word; or (3) epithetic, or put at the end of a word.”

He goes on to give examples derived from Latin.

§ “Before the initial sounds sc, sm, sp, st (which are hard to pronounce), the French have placed an e, which renders the sound more easy by doubling the s: espace, spatium; espèce, species; espèrer, sperare; estomach, stomachum; esclandre, scandalum, [etc.]”

Its opposite is apheresis, a mirror image, since it started life as a grammatical term, then was later absorbed into medicine.

  • The taking away or suppression of a letter or syllable at the beginning of a word [1611].
  • Med. Obs. Aphæresis in medicine denotes a necessary taking away or removal of something that is noxious. In surgery, an operation whereby something superfluous is taken away [1880]. OED

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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