Saturday, September 08, 2012


Margaret writes that a recent issue of a health bulletin that she regularly receives had an interesting piece on sarcopenia. That’s defined as the loss of muscle mass and coordination associated with aging. Tell me about it.

It’s the word components that Margaret asked about. Sarco- comes from the Greek σαρκ- (sark), meaning flesh. Penia comes from the Greek πενία (penia), and it means poverty or deficiency.

Both word parts occur most frequently in medical or scientific terms. Most people, I would think, know what a sarcoma is. They may not realize, however, that the word sarcasm, a cutting remark, literally means a tearing or ripping of flesh.

A slight complication arises because two other Latin words used the –sarc– letter sequence. The word sarcio meant to patch or to mend; that brought us the English consarcinate, to patch together. The word sarcina was a load or a pack. In the old days, you could sarcinate – that is, load a beast of burden.

I would have thought that the –penia combining form would be a most useful tool in defining various deficiencies, but a wildcard search in the Oxford English Dictionary turned up only 15 words. They range from cytopenia (a reduction of the normal number of blood cells) to thrombopenia (a decrease in the number of platelets in circulating blood).

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