Tuesday 27 December 2011


I’ve been reading Siddharta Mukherjee’s fascinating book The Emperor of All Maladies. I’d go along with Dacid Rieff’s judgment:
Siddhartha Mukherjee has done something that should not have been possible: he has managed, at once, to write an authoritative history of cancer for the general reader, while always keeping the experiences of cancer patients in his heart and in his narrative. At once learned and skeptical, unsentimental and humane, The Emperor of all Maladies is that rarest of things - a noble book.

I had not previously been aware of the importance of the German doctor and biologist Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902), who made several important discoveries to do with leukemia. Coming across his name in the book, I naturally wondered how to pronounce it. Its spelling combines three different uncertainties in German spelling-to-pronunciation rules: the initial letter v (f or v?), ch (ç or x?) and the final w (f or silent?).

Mangold’s Duden Aussprachewörterbuch gives
Virchow ˈfɪrço, auch ˈvɪ…
This is confirmed by the Deutsches Aussprachewörterbuch.
fˈɪʁçoː od. vˈɪʁ
Merriam-Webster 11 offers the anglicization
ˈfir-(ˌ)kō, ˈvir-
which translates into BrE as ˈfɪəkəʊ or ˈvɪəkəʊ. So be it.
_ _ _

The rest of this post is a rant about the failure of authors and editors to carry out appropriate fact-checking before publication.

My quibble is this. As I came to the book I knew very little about the aetiology and therapeutics of cancer. I was eager to hear what Mukherjee had to tell me about surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and the biology of carcinoma cells. Naturally, I was prepared to accept as authentic what he wrote on these topics. But every now and again, as he introduced some new technical term, he would tell us the purported etymology of the word in question. Now language is something I do know a bit about, and here almost everything Mukherjee says is inaccurate. This reduces my faith in him as an authority on other matters.

Marie Curie called the new element radium, from the Greek word for “light”.
No, radium is not Greek, and it does not mean ‘light’. The word was coined from rad- (in French radioactif) plus the suffix -ium (used to form the names of metallic elements). Rad- is from the Latin word radius, which means ‘rod, spoke, ray’. The Greek for ‘light’ is φῶς phōs (contracted from φάος phaos), stem φωτ- phōt-, which gives us photography, photon etc.

…vinca, the Latin word for “bind”.
No, the Latin word for ‘bind’ (verb) is vincio, vincire, vinxi, vinctum. The related noun is vinculum ‘a bond, fetter’. The form vinca is late Latin and botanical Latin for a genus of plants known in English as ‘periwinkle’. The drug vincristine was derived from a plant formerly included in the genus Vinca (but now placed in Catharanthus).

adjuvant, from the Latin phrase “to help”
No, the Latin origin of this word is adjuvans, with stem adjuvant-. It is not a phrase, but a single word. It means ‘helping’ and is the present participle active of the verb adjuvo. ‘To help’ is adjuvare, its infinitive.

[a propos Ramazzini’s De Morbis Artificum Diatriba] …one such morbis
The intended word is morbus, the nominative singular of the word meaning ‘disease’. The form morbis is the Latin ablative plural, used after the preposition de.

mitosis — Greek for “thread” —
The Greek for ‘thread’ is mitos (μίτος). Mitosis is a modern Latin coinage based on this root.

Not about language, but a matter of general knowledge, is
…the isolated hamlet of Brno, Austria…
Brno, where Mendel carried out his pea experiments at St Thomas’s Abbey, is no “isolated hamlet”, but a large city, the capital of Moravia.

I’m not saying that Mukherjee ought to have known all these things. I’m saying that someone — either the author or the publisher’s editor — ought to have checked the facts, which are readily available.


  1. Let's hope this is normal and not an ominous sign.

  2. Surely /x/ wouldn't be a possibility in 'Virchow'.

  3. is Brno 'a large city'?

    It's a city, and it's quite large — but when I lived there, it had the feel of a small city. As far as I can tell, its current population is a bit smaller than that of where I now live; Edinburgh — which also feels like a relatively small city.

    Brno don't feel like the regional capital of Moravia — a feeling confirmed by an assertion on Wikipedia backed up by two references that the status was removed by the Communists when they took power. This makes sense is a centralising regime.

    I'm recalling a time back in the 1990's. I wonder how Czechs feel today...

  4. I guess Austrian Empire would have been more accurate than Austria (or Austro-Hungarian after 1867- Mendel died in 1884), with a possible mention to Brünn, the German name of the city of Brno, which I think it was the most used form at that time.

    Anyway Brünn-Brno had over 80K inhabitants by 1880 so it surely does not qualify as a hamlet.

    I think two pieces of data of Mendel's biography are beign confused here. He was born in an isolated hamlet, Heinzendorf bei Odrau (current Czech name: Hynčice) which it is still a very small place.


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