April 15, 2004

Another punning etymology

As SC has recently pointed out, medical science has finally redeemed all those bad puns about the Diet of Worms. According to this New Scientist article, this BBC story and this press release, a new German company named BioCure will soon be marketing "a drinkable concoction containing thousands of pig whipworm eggs", if the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products approves. BioCure's "sister company BioMonde sells leeches and maggots for treating wounds", so they know the medicinal-uses-of-parasites business.

It's curious, by the way, that the worm cocktail, though developed by Joel Weinstock at the University of Iowa, and tested in clinical trials in the U.S., will be marketed in Europe -- none of the cited sources explains this.

According to the New Scientist article, "Weinstock's theory is that our immune systems have evolved to cope with the presence of such parasites, and can become overactive without them", resulting in autoimmune disorders such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.

When I was a youth in the wilds of rural Connecticut, our local pharmacist would pay us for gathering leeches. At a nickel per leech, this offered a welcome way to supplement our income while paddling around in cool ponds and river pools on hot summer days. At the time, I thought this was a sign of a quaint survival of traditional practices among the local Yankees, but apparently it was a harbinger of 21st-century biomedical science. The Germans probably breed their leeches in stainless-steel vats, alas.

But my point here, if I have one, is the punning etymology of diet. According to the OED, it's a conflation of derivations from the Latin dies "day" and the (etymologically unrelated and not cognate) Greek δίαιτα "mode of life":

Med.L. diēta had the various senses ‘day's journey’, ‘day's work’, ‘day's wage’, ‘space of a day’, as well as that of ‘assembly, meeting of councillors, diet of the empire’. The same senses, more or less, are (or have been) expressed by Ger. tag, and F. journée day. Diēta has therefore been viewed as a simple derivative of L. dies day, distinct from diæta, Gr. δίαιτα, DIET n.1 But it seems more likely that one or other of the senses developed from diæta was associated with dies, and led to the application of the word to other uses arising directly from dies. One of the senses given by Du Cange is ‘the ordinary course of the church’: this seems naturally transferred from δίαιτα, diæta, in the sense ‘ordinary or prescribed course of life’, which might be understood to mean ‘daily office’, and so lead to the use of diēta for other daily courses, duties, or occasions.

See this post for another example of punning etymology, in the case of pole.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 15, 2004 12:14 AM