Word Matters Podcast

Why is it called an 'adam's apple'?

Word Matters, Episode 31

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The Adam's apple: it's neither an apple nor is it possessed exclusively by people named Adam. We'll talk about why that is, plus another linguistic conundrum: how did 'physician' become a word for "doctor" while 'physicist' stayed in the realm of matter and energy?

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(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Emily Brewster: Historically, there's been this idea that it's somehow is called an Adam's apple because maybe Adam ate this apple and it got lodged in his throat.

Peter Sokolowski: Why is it that a person who practices medicine is called a physician?

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, the puzzling name of the human laryngeal protuberance and the history of physician. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Welcome to anatomy and physiology week on Word Matters. First up, the Adam's apple. It is neither an apple, nor is it the possession only of people named Adam. How did this anatomical feature get its name? I'll take a look at this one.

There's a term for an anatomical element, a laryngeal protuberance is maybe a more technical way of phrasing it, and that term is Adam's apple. Have you all ever wondered about the term Adam's apple?

Neil Serven: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: I have to say I don't know anything about it. About the name that is.

Emily Brewster: Are you familiar with any etymologies, any sense of where Adam's apple comes from?

Peter Sokolowski: It has this biblical resonance, obviously.

Emily Brewster: Yes, yes it does. In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were living there very happily. There was a tree in the middle of the garden, The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and God told them, "You can eat anything in this whole garden, but don't eat what grows on this tree." Then a serpent came and tempted Eve, said "You really should try." So she did, and then she got Adam to try and then everything has been terrible ever since. So, it's technically in the Bible, it's described as a fruit generally, but in art, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, and in a more general sense of the term, it's often described as an apple. The fruit that they ate of, the fruit that grew on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, was an apple.

So, Adam's apple has historically, there's been this idea that it somehow is called an Adam's apple because maybe Adam ate this apple and it got lodged in his throat, because it was this terrible sin. It was this crime against God to eat this fruit and it got stuck there. So, that is an idea that people have had going back as far as the early 18th century, that this is really the origin of the term Adam's apple, but it has nothing to do with that at all.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh!

Emily Brewster: Yeah, which I think is very interesting.

Neil Serven: Really?

Emily Brewster: Yes, the term Adam's apple, long before it referred to the laryngeal protuberance, was used as a term to refer to any number of different kinds of fruits. The term apple was used really broadly before the infusion of French onto the English language, the imposition of so many French words onto the English language. After The Norman Invasion, the word apple was used as a general term for referring to any fruit. Then because of French, we got the word fruit. So, apple became specialized as being a particular kind of fruit. Although apple also applied very broadly in a number of different languages, but before an Adam's apple was the laryngeal protuberance, it also referred to plantains, citrons, pomelos. The idea of them being "Adam's" apples was that they were treasured. They were really special. They were fruit as if it had come from the Garden of Eden. These are fruits that are so wonderful that Adam may have eaten them before the fall.

Ammon Shea: Oh, so it's a different use of the genitive. It's Adam's apple that he has been holding on for special occasion, and won't give you any no matter how much you ask, rather than Adam's apple that he swallowed and choked on.

Emily Brewster: Right, this is the Adam's apple that he lost for all the rest of us, I guess.

Ammon Shea: Oh, okay.

Emily Brewster: Right, there's a Latin translation that is applied in other European languages is pomum Adam, pomum adami for various fruits including, and this is key, the pomegranate.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right.

Emily Brewster: The pomegranate. And the reason this is key is that in the medieval times, before we had the word Adam's apple for referring to the Laryngeal protuberance, there were Arab medical writers who were giving names to various anatomy by way of analogy. And they settled on pomegranate for the reference to the Adam's apple. They called this laryngeal protuberance a pomegranate. And we don't know why these Arab medieval writers used that as an analogy. Did it have to do with the texture or did it have to do with the kind of significance of the pomegranate in lore? It's a very evocative fruit in a number of different literary...

Ammon Shea: Sure, mythologies.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, mythology, right. Persephone.

Ammon Shea: Right, right, pomegranate seeds.

Emily Brewster: Poor Persephone, yes.

Neil Serven: Hesperides, the golden apples.

Emily Brewster: And also, the Prophet Muhammad reportedly recommended eating pomegranates. So we don't know why, but these Arab medieval writers chose the word pomegranate to refer to the Laryngeal protuberance, which then English writers translated not as pomegranate, but they translated it as Adam's apple because pomegranate was also called Adam's apple.

Neil Serven: Now I know the French word pomme is "apple," right? And so you see apple kind of invoked in the names of these other fruits in different languages or vegetables, or what do you call them? Pomme de terre is what they call a potato in France. It's literally an apple of the earth. I've heard a tomato called a love apple sometimes. I think, somehow in the name pineapple, apple factors in there somehow, and in its name, obviously, but it's not really related to the apple I don't think in any way. So you can kind of see these other areas where apple is like the go-to name for the fruit. And then, these other fruits or vegetables are sort of based off of the idea of the apple. So apple just kind of serves as a general name for fruit in some way.

Emily Brewster: But the Adam's apple has more to do with the pineapple than it has to do with the Garden of Eden. The internet will tell you differently, like that story about it being a bit of the Edenic apple lodged in all you poor boys' throats, that's out there as, as a myth still being repeated to this day.

Peter Sokolowski: Sort of a folk etymology.

Neil Serven: I remember playing the game Operation as a kid and the Adam's apple was one of the things you had to remove. And the little piece was in the guy's throat and it was shaped like an apple, I think, with a bite taken out of it.

Emily Brewster: Well that was the more difficult pieces to get out, right?

Peter Sokolowski: It was.

Emily Brewster: Very difficult-

Neil Serven: That and the wishbone.

Emily Brewster: It would make more sense in the story if it were Eve's apple. Right? But it's not.

Ammon Shea: Does Eve have any fruit? Because I know that sometimes we also list Adam's fig as another For the plantain. And there are some other Adam's fruits that we come across. But does Eve have any fruits?

Emily Brewster: No.

Ammon Shea: Boy. Talk about getting shortchanged.

Neil Serven: Well, we know there were figs in the garden because they had to use the leaves to cover themselves.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll explore the origins of physician after the break. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word?. Email us @wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Behold, the words physician and physicist. One refers to someone who practices medicine and one refers to someone who thinks professionally about matter and energy. Why all those letters in common and where does the word doctor fit in? Here's Peter Sokoloski with the story behind physician and physicist.

Peter Sokolowski: We in the dictionary trade tend to concentrate more on new words coming into the language than those words that are sort of quietly leaving the language. And this makes perfect sense that we're sort of attracted to what's new, but sometimes the relics of these older words sort of hiding in plain sight can tell us a story about how English has evolved. And so a case in point is if you take categories, a scientist studies science, a dentist applies dentistry, a plumber works with plumbing, but why is it that a person who practices medicine is called a physician? And that's a sort of interesting question that gets back into kind of early modern science, but also the shifts in English that happened at that time. It goes back to the fact that in the early modern period or the late medieval period, the word physic was used to mean the practice of healing disease. It was also used for the word medicine, essentially, a remedy for disease. So physic, and we actually see that sometimes in Shakespeare, for example, a physic was actually a medicine or a dose of medicine. And this is all kind of pre-modern ideals, of course, on ideas of what medicine was. In Shakespeare's day, the word physic meant "medicine" and physician was used as we do occasionally as in "one who practices medicine." But for example, Hamlet says, "This physic but prolongs thy sickly days." So physic meaning "medicine." And it's an interesting point to see that physician and physic were sometimes used as a personification. So there's the Thomas Nashe poem called "The Litany in Time of Plague," which has a kind of resonance to us today, and it goes, "Rich men trust, not in wealth, gold cannot buy you health physic himself must fade, all things to end are made. The plague full Swift goes by, I am sick, I must die." An amazing piece.

Ammon Shea: Thomas Nashe has resonance in every age. We can always trust Nashe to somehow be relevant.

Emily Brewster: Where does physics come in?

Peter Sokolowski: Well, exactly. It comes in a bit later. So the term medicine first was a synonym for that "remedy" use of physic. And the two words have co-existed for centuries. And it wasn't until the 18th century that we get this idea of physics in the modern sense of the science. We see in Nathan Bailey's dictionary, a famous dictionary from 1725. And this was the dictionary among other things that was maybe the biggest, most comprehensive dictionary before Samuel Johnson's and a really well-known dictionary. His entry for physic included this little note that said "in a more limited and improper sense, it is applied to the science of medicine." We have this sort of judgy improper usage note from Bailey, which shows you in the 18th century, as we moving into the sort of scientific modern period, that physic no longer meant "medicine" or was stigmatized in some ways.

But what happened at that time, what we saw in the 18th century was the sort of moment of scientific and cultural and linguistic change. This is when chemistry separated from alchemy and when astrology separated from astronomy, and this is when the word biology was coined, it actually came about in the 1700s. And physics in that modern sense became restricted to the study of matter and energy rather than medicine or living things. And it's interesting that even in Webster's dictionary, 1828, he defines physic as "the art of healing diseases." And then has a note. "This is now generally called medicine." So we can actually watch in the record, that is to say in the older dictionaries, a word fading away. And what you got next was this distinction between a physician and a physicist. Because physician was associated with physic, physicist was coined to be associated with physics.

Neil Serven: This is when we were getting away from when the idea of medicine was associated with the bodily humors, with melancholia and black bile, and yellow bile. And we're getting into the fact that more was known about the body at the time, we were able to research more about the body. I believe the ability to apply new studies to the science meant we kind of got away from the idea of just having these humors inside us, that kind of determined whether we were healthier or what our moods were.

Peter Sokolowski: And just think about the way that we conceive of alchemy and astrology, which is to say, like the humors, kind of pre-modern ideas of science or pseudoscience by today's standards.

Emily Brewster: If we go back and just to think about the terminology that was at play here, it's interesting to look at the word doctor because the word doctor, by the end of the 14th century, it was being used to refer as it is now to qualified academics and also to medical practitioners. But at the very beginning of the 14th century, it was very specifically only about eminent theologians and especially ones who had a special seal of approval from the Roman Catholic Church. These were trained and approved theologians who could talk about and explain church doctrine to people.

Peter Sokolowski: So a learned person?

Emily Brewster: That's right. And the source of the word is Latin for "teacher," docēre, meaning "to teach."

Peter Sokolowski: And so doctor comes from doctrine and has nothing to do specifically with medicine.

Emily Brewster: That's right. And the first doctors were not medical doctors.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, and doctrine has to do with laws and texts. Doctor today, we generally associate with medical doctors, even though what had been the sort of learned person model, we would call a professor now.

Emily Brewster: And people are criticized sometimes for describing themselves as doctors. If they're not medical doctors, that's disapproved in some settings, although it does make sense if you're saying, "Is there a doctor in the house?" that it not be a doctor of linguistics, for example.

Ammon Shea: Who needs natural language processing, quick!

Peter Sokolowski: There's another word, which is surgeon. And what's interesting is that there was a distinction made between sort of the internal medicine and the very mechanical function of a surgeon. Surgery was kind of looked down upon by the medical people.

Emily Brewster: By everyone who had it.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. And surgeons were initially barbers. They were the same person.

Emily Brewster: Barbers cut hair and removed appendixes. Is this what you're saying?

Neil Serven: Or tumors or something. You go in for a tumor removed and meanwhile, little off the top and you know, a little, maybe a little dye job or something.

Peter Sokolowski: We're talking about in the pre-modern era, a really savage time of pain and disease. And so really, we're talking about removing of limbs, it was pretty brutal. Well, that's why the barber's pole is red and white stripe. The red represents the blood that would be dripping down the man's arm, I believe. But at the very least it does represent the blood that was drawn in the surgery, in the process of his job, which is sort of a callback to a pre-modern kind of medicine and very brutal. But that's what the red and white barber's pole refers to. But so surgery, because it was external medicine, because it went from the humors to the more modern ideas of what causes disease, surgery was always considered kind of just a mechanical operation. And they were looked down upon initially and not even as professionals. They had an apprenticeship rather than an education. Today. We look at surgeons as among the most specialized of medical practitioners. So that's changed quite a lot. And the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for barber surgeon. And certainly during military campaigns, think of the revolutionary war, the Napoleonic Wars, the Civil War, this is the kind of expertise you might have expected, which is again, a little bit alarming in today's context.

Emily Brewster: I'm finding myself really curious about that pole. Was that a source of advertising?

Neil Serven: I assume it was meant the same way as like a red cross or something. Like if you need something in an emergency, maybe you want it to be able to find them when you got into town and be able to identify them quickly.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right. In town, you'd have your little sign outside of the door that in a preliterate society, you know, a boot maker would have a boot or something, or a farrier would have a horseshoe. There would be symbols of their professions on the outside of their businesses. And this was the barber's sign.

Neil Serven: So when you're in town and you want to get your shoes cobbled and you just run it two doors over and get your gallbladder removed. And then by the time that's done, your shoes are done and you can head on home.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about where it matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email @wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Servin, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokoloski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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