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Jeffrey Aronson: When I use a word . . . Sepsis and septicaemia

A reader of The BMJ has written to the editor to ask for clarification of the terms “sepsis” and “septicaemia”. The answer could be said to be rather creepy.

The IndoEuropean root SERP meant to crawl or creep. The Latin verb serpere meant to glide or crawl, to wind along like a snake, to extend in a serpentine manner, or to gain ground gradually. The present participle of the verb, serpens, was also used as a noun, meaning a snake or a maggot; serpula was a small snake and serpullum a kind of herb that crept along the ground. The name Serpens was also given to a constellation whose head and tail, Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda, were conceived as winding around the constellation of Ophiuchus, which in Greek means serpent holder, later translated into Latin as Serpentarius.

Dropping the r from SERP gave the Greeks σήψ, a serpent whose bite caused intense thirst followed by mortification of the bitten flesh. In the Epidemics , attributed to Hippocrates, σήψ was used to mean a putrefying sore and its formation was explained in humoral terms . It is now used in English to refer to a genus, Seps, of a type of lizard with a serpent-like body.

In Greek SERP also gave ἕρπειν, to creep, and ἑρπετόν, any creeping thing, in general a reptile; ἑρπυστικά were spreading ulcers. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and herpes is a creeping eruption. These words arose because of replacement of the initial sigma by an aspirated rough breathing . For example, the moon goddess Selene was cognate with another goddess Helle, one of whose votaresses was Helen of Troy, before she married Menelaus. This switch also occurred between languages. Compare, for instance, the Greek and Latin words for a pig (ὗς and sus), salt (ἅλς and sal), six (ἕξand sex), seven (ἑπτά and septem), and to leap (ἅλλεσθαι and salire).

From the putrefying wound inflicted by a snake, also called σήψ, came the words σήπειν, to rot, and σῆψις, fermentation or putrefaction. In the theory of pepsis (πέψις, softening or ripening) and sepsis, the former implied healthy gastrointestinal digestion, the latter intestinal rejection of non-nutritious food, supposedly through putrefaction in the colon. When the word sepsis entered English in the mid 19 th century it meant putrescence or putrefaction. Septicaemia, defined as putrid infection of the blood, appeared at about the same time; the earliest instance of septicaemia in a publication indexed in PubMed is from 1873—13 years earlier than the earliest instance of sepsis , from 1886.

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Given the upcoming election, it is widely understood that the 2018 Ontario Budget is as much a campaign platform document as a budget. While the continued implementation of reforms to student assistance are expected to further improve access for students, faculty are concerned that operating funding for universities remains stagnant, threatening the high-quality education students […]

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University revenues by student and government funding sources Ontario student fees have accounted for a greater share of current university revenues (primarily operating and research) than provincial government grants in only two stretches over the course of nearly a century. The first was a five-year stretch beginning in 1945-46 when the federal Department of Veterans […]

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Ben Lewis

Ontario’s public universities are vital institutions that deliver education to thousands of students, produce thought-provoking and groundbreaking research, and provide good jobs that support many diverse communities. The province’s vibrant and renowned public postsecondary education system has been evolving for over a century. Core to its development has been a foundation of robust public funding […]

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There is an appealing simplicity in numbers. A number’s value is never ambiguous, even if its meaning can be. Numbers are specific and easily compared to one another. They allow us to measure the dimensions of an object or to describe the outcomes of a decision. There has long been a desire to use numbers […]

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Cheryl Athersych

During Congress 2017, a session on the Challenges to the Integrity of Academic Hiring Practices in the Corporate University encouraged participants to ask themselves some difficult questions about the value of Canadian training in sociology. After a long and intensive discussion, members of the Canadian Sociological Association passed a motion to research hiring trends in […]

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Above the Expo in a hallway, I found an art installation exhibit that, in a quiet and unassuming way, pulled together many of the overarching themes of Congress this year. Held May 27–June 2 in Toronto, Congress 2017 set out to push attendees to think about Canada’s past, while imagining what the next 150 years […]

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“Keep hold of a few plain truths, and make everything square with them. When I was young … there never was any question about right and wrong … Every respectable Church person had the same opinions. But now, if you speak out of the Prayer-book itself, you are liable to be contradicted.” Those are the […]

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Janet Miron and Joan Sangster, faculty members at Trent University


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