Friday, April 1, 2016

The Surprising Etymology of "Diagnosis"

I have a pretty astute readership, so I’m sure many of you are already aware of the unusual history and etymology of the word, “diagnosis.” It sounds Latin on the front end, but a little Greek in the caboose. So which is it? A more specific description would be that it is borrowed second-hand from the Anglo-Saxon.

“Docga næsgristle” is a two-word phrase that by Middle English had been collapsed to the single word, “Dognoste.” The word “docga” is a weak masculine noun that around 500 A.D. in what is now England and Southern Scotland would have referred to a dog. “Naegristle” identified the cartilage at the end of a dog’s nose.

Ever since the domestication of canines, the state of a dog’s nose has been man’s best indicator of its health. If the “dog’s nose is” warm and dry, the dog is probably sick. If the “dog’s nose is” cold and wet, the dog is probably healthy. The phrase “dog’s nose is” grew out of the word “dognoste,” and through voluminous repeating eventually whittled itself down to “diagnosis,” which as Middle English and the development of modern English prosody began to coalesce around 1200 A.D., came to mean the identification of an illness.

So the word “diagnosis” is neither Greek nor Latin per se. It is a conflation of the words “dog’s nose is,” originally derived from the Anglo Saxon as a metaphor for human health via the muzzle of man’s best friend. This is one of the many reasons why I am so in love with words. (Please note, this was originally posted on April 1, 2016).