The etymology trail
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The etymology trail

New or seldom-heard words often get us thinking about their origin; and in the process we unravel a series of words that have no relation to each other and yet seem similar. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

columns Updated: Jul 16, 2013 23:01 IST

Epistaxis. I had never heard of the word.

Nor had I heard of or met the calm and confident ENT doctor until, on a visit to Delhi, my nose went epistaxic. Thus are long-standing associations formed — in a moment of sudden, razor-sharp emergency.

The episode does not bear further recounting, for no one should be subjected to an account of gore. Let me just say that the noun has a Greek origin, no less, and is the medical term for something as banal, as utterly boring, and yet as horribly unsettling as — a nose-bleed.

‘Epi…?’ I asked, deciphering rather than reading the new word the good doctor had written out on the top of his medical report. ‘Epistaxis…’, he said, ‘is the medical name for this condition’. I wanted to ask him what the word meant but that would have diverted his attention from the ruddy cataract and I opted for lexical poverty over haematological profusion.

But throughout the procedure that followed I kept trying to unravel the word, doubtless, to distract my mind from the reality of the lurid seep. And, as I lay in hospital, the thoughts developed somewhat like this…

Epi…must find out what the root of that word is…There are so many epi-s, of course.

Ouch. ‘Sorry, sir, slightly hurtful…the nasal cavity is sensitive…we are applying an anaesthetic…’

Anaesthetic…must also have a Greek origin…an opposite of aesthetic? …If aesthetics are about sensitivity….anaesthetic must be about dulling that sensitivity…Must check…Perhaps Aesthesia was a gorgeous Greek goddess, versed in the arts …or embodying them like Sarasvati….and Anaesthesia a demoness…Must check…

Meanwhile…let me think of the various Greek sounding epi-s…There is, of course, epic…probably not connected to this epi…but to epoch…God knows…

Epi…let me see how many epi-s I can remember…

Episode! Of course….this very thing with me…a medical episode…Whatever ‘epi’ might mean, where in heaven does ‘sode’ come from?

‘Are you quite comfortable?’

‘Oh yes …I mean…under the circumstances of this episode…’

‘Good…good…Won’t take long…’

Episode… Wonder what ‘epi’ means in Greek anyway …Must check…So… what are the other epi words…

‘Sir, we will now do the filling….’

‘Yes, please do…. Thank you, Doctorsahib…’

I focused now more pointedly on Epi…Epistle….no one writes epistles any more…our short letters now being not epistles but sms-es… ow r u…lol…Epigram…terse sarcastic saying…they are all but gone…Epithet…in our Parliament House Hiren Mookherjee calling the perfume-loving Satyanarayan Sinha ‘His Fragrance’, and the many-worded Speaker Ananthasayanam Ayyangar ‘Ananthavachanam Ayyangar’.

Epidemic….demic from demos, certainly, recalling masses of people …the word now is all but replaced by Pandemic. I could not but think of, with a numb pain, of epilepsy and of Julius Caesar. Thoughts are a curious thing. Caesar reminded me of Cleopatra and of the adage about how history would have been different if Cleopatra’s nose had been an inch longer or shorter.

As I got onto my return flight to Chennai looking like a knob-nosed clown I could not but think of what a ridiculous thing the human nose is. Except on little babies where it actually looks sweet, and on the majestic rhino, that idiotic protuberance on the face would not bear scrutiny even if it was Cleo-perfect. And I could not but think of Raj Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker.

A clown’s face, it is made to look clownish, essentially, by two things: the vertical lines drawn across his eyes and by the white or red knob stuck on his nose. Raj Kapoor’s was the perfect joker nose in that film based on a masterpiece of a script by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas.

But it was more, much more. Its red symbolised the tragic clown’s agony, his tragedy. The Shankar-Jaikishan songs in that film remain heart-crunching. If Hasrat Jaipuri’s ‘jaane kahaan gaye voh din’ is deathless, Shailendra’s ‘jeena yahaan, marna yahaan’ is immortal. And if what is meant to look funny can ever begin to look actually tragic, it did on Raj Kapoor’s face in that film.

Reaching home, I looked up the dictionary. The page had almost 30 words beginning with ‘epi’ which was described as meaning, in Greek, ‘upon’.

And my mind still playing ‘jeena yahaan, marnaa yahaan’, I imagined my late brother the philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi say, ‘You see, in any epistemology of Being, epistaxis should be seen as an epiphenomenon, not the main thing… but with a strong reminder of a greater illness which is about being trapped in the cage called the body to undergo an imprisonment called life...until, in an imaginary conversation with Ramana Maharshi you experience, through Self Enquiry, the most liberating of all epi-s, a self-realisational epiphany..’

I was not sure if I understood my brother but I was grateful to him for giving my epistaxis this epilogue.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 16, 2013 22:50 IST