Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Barbaric Words

I like to make my medical notes interesting enough to be worthwhile to the reader.  Or maybe I just want to make the creation of such notes interesting to myself after three decades or so.  I go for readability.

So the other day when doing a pre-operative physical I commented that the patient had been very reluctant to undergo a much needed procedure because she “suspected the medical system of avarice.”

Other folks at the clinic appreciated the touch-which was clinically relevant in this case-and declared it The Word for the Day.

It got me thinking…..

I had assumed that “avarice” derived from Avar, that being a designation for a bunch of ill behaved Central Asian nomads who charged about stealing things in the early Middle Ages.

They had after all stomped about in Central Europe not long after other barbarian assemblages that have come down to us over time.
Like the Vandals, whose similar behavior has somewhat unfairly given us the term “vandalism” for mindless breakage.  As it turns out the Vandals settled down into their own kingdoms without too much pillage and rapine of the decadent Roman Empire.

Consider also the Goths, both Ostra and Visa types in their East and West franchises.  True, they give us Goth in the sense of sullen, pierced and tattooed marginalized youth.  But they also give us Gothic architecture which is civilized if a bit overdone.

Another somewhat later bunch of barbarians come off the best of all.  The Franks were not much better or worse than the Goths and Vandals, but in our parlance to “speak frankly” is to be a teller of the truth.  The term probably originates in the Old German word “frankon” which was a type of spear.  The Franks once established as the ruling class by liberal use of the frankon then considered themselves “free men”, so that to speak frankly and to speak freely mean the same thing…nobody is going to argue with you.

Alas for my theory about the Avars.

The Avar language is of obscure origins, with the word “awar” , meaning "opponent" or "obstacle" perhaps being the source of their tribal name.  They first turn up in historical records circa 463 AD in the writings of Priscus, a Byzantine historian.  He wrote in Greek, so any connection to the Latin word “avarus” for greedy, is just an etymological coincidence.
Other barbarian tribes of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages have mostly done OK by themselves.  Both the Huns and the Bulgars have countries recalling their names.  The Bulgars probably get a breakfast cereal too.  The Burgundians get some great wine.  The Tartars have to settle for raw steak.

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