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Words embody a worldview. They are the way in which different cultures at different times understand, describe, and relate to reality. Today, medicine organizes reality through a scientific language, a discourse in which words have a special relation to things: they indicate objects as part of a controlled and agreed-upon nomenclature, or they refer to similarly controlled and agreed-upon definitions. The language of science is a language that has the present as its essential horizon. It is designed to be clear and univocal, to function as a tool for the production and sharing of information about the world to which we have access in the present—of which we can, that is, have experimental knowledge. Scientific language works well for that purpose. A fibula, for instance, is “the outer or postaxial and usually the smaller of the two bones of the hind or lower limb below the knee” and nothing else; just as by digestion we mean “the process of making food absorbable by mechanically and enzymatically breaking it down into simpler chemical compounds in the alimentary canal” (both definitions are extracted from the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, s.v.). Words, however, may be useful to approach worldviews that are distant from the here and now but with which we may want to establish a relation. These different ways of understanding reality may no longer be active, or they may be alternatives to the ones we hold and practice, and our relation to them would depend either on our claiming a historical connection (they are the ways in which people before us understood reality) or multifocal interest (they are the ways in which other cultures understand the world). In both cases, again, we have words to rely upon to establish that connection and pursue that interest.

The following paragraphs outline the essential elements of the way in which classical (Western) antiquity looked at a specific part in the human body—the liver—and presented its knowledge and understanding of it through 3 different but interrelated discourses: etymology, myth, and natural history. In each discourse, words are of the essence. Etymologic analysis of the words used to indicate the object “liver” will show how the web of interconnections between these terms and their cognates and components articulated the ancient understanding of both the nature and function of this organ. A survey of mythological paradigms involving the liver—orally circulated “stories” that were eventually transcribed into literary texts—will suggest how Greek and Roman civilizations may have entrusted to that medium particular knowledge about the liver. Finally, consideration of the early descriptions and investigation techniques of ancient texts of natural history will afford us a similar glimpse into the prehistory of medical discourse.


As the recent survey by Riva and colleagues of the organ’s name in Germanic and Romance languages nicely illustrates, the terms used in the Western world to indicate this organ can tell ...

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