Imagine if someone were to show you a map of diseases. Every disease, splayed out across the globe, signified by colour and shaded for concentration. All the ways of getting sick, and the ways and places they’re spreading. You look at it and you react, trying to grasp it: “Ch—… Th—… O no no… so…”

All the ways to zero in on sickness. All the repeats, and the confusion, and the things you’re not sure you can say. The down-and-dirty, down in the dirt and spread out over the earth. Here’s your chance to geek out… or Greek out. Every map of a pandemic, an epidemic, or an academic exercise in the glory of sickness transiting the monde, it’s all chthononosology.

Just look at those letters: c g h h l n n o o o o o s t y. So many o’s (five of them, like the number of zeros in ten myriads). Doubled h, then (with the chimneys cut off) doubled n. And ending, logically, with the logy of words and science.

It’s all from Greek, of course: χθών khthón ‘earth’ (as in the surface of the planet, or the dirt that makes it) and νόσος nosos ‘disease’ and λόγος logos ‘word, discourse’. Talking about the diseases of the surface of the earth, which means all over the world. We know these roots: every -logy, logically; a few nos- words such as nosocomial (which refers to diseases that have been acquired in a hospital – the kind that make hospitals bright hot spots on disease maps); and chthonic, having to do with the ground, the earth, the dirt, the surface of the planet or something burrowed beneath it… perhaps something deep and dark and dirty and evil…

This word was put together as such by someone probably in England in the later 1800s. It shows up in the New Sydenham Society’s Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences of 1881. Honestly, it probably could have been geonosology or nosogeography, but it wasn’t and that’s just the way it is. And fair enough: disease calls for something more deep, dark, dirty, and hard to say; even a map of diseases looks like the tracings of an ancient earth spirit, and experiencing an actual affliction may lead to an unusual increase in utterances of “ch” (the hard kind) and “th” and especially “ooooo.” And now, when someone shows you yet another map of worldly unwellness, you have a word to characterize it.

One response to “chthononosology

  1. Greek χθών khthón ‘earth’ is cognate with Hebrew aleph-resh-tzadi which occurs in the first sentence of the Old Testament.
    The transfer across languages probably occurred via Phoenician. The ancient aleph had a northern GHT and Mediterranean CHS sound.
    The same aleph occurs in the 2nd word of the Old Testament:
    bet-resh-aleph which is translated as “created”. It is cognate with English BRouGHT (forth).
    The same aleph occurs in the first word of the Old Testament which is derived from the root resh-aleph-shin which means “head”. This explains the toponym Roxolania, the ancient name of the Ukraine which was the head of kHermes on the Phoenician anthropomorphic map of West Asia.

    Click to access file.pdf
    Today, the printed aleph looks very much like an X. The shape of the aleph is thought to represent the head of an ox, spelled Ochs in German. The shape of the Rashi script aleph is similar to the modern Hebrew letter het which today has a kH sound.

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