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Medical Terms Under the Microscope

May 24, 1999|ROSIE MESTEL

Ever since we wrote about the origins of the word "nicotine" a few weeks back, we've had an addiction to medical trivia. So we pounced when a book called "Medical Meanings" (American College of Physicians) showed up recently. In fact, the book--stuffed with facts about medical words--temporarily caused an alarming drop in work productivity, as e-mail like "Did you know that 'expectorant' comes from the Latin word 'expectorare,' meaning 'to expel from the chest'?" flitted about the office.

But enough about our exciting lives. We bet you didn't know that microscopes were once called "flea glasses"--because they made hopping fleas so easy to see. Or that "incontinent" meant "immediately" in Shakespearean English (which explains why Desdemona declares that Othello will "return incontinent").

Or that "ambulance" comes from the French for "walking hospital." To treat solders on the battlefield, Napoleon's army devised small portable units containing dressings and medicine.

And there's more! The drug heroin was once hailed as a cure for morphine addiction, and morphine was once hailed as a cure for opium addiction.

"Botulism" comes from Latin for "sausage" (it was a tainted sausage, not canned salmon, that struck down some Germans last century).

And graham crackers, finally, were named after one Rev. Sylvester Graham, who believed that natural cereals suppress the baser passions. (That's it. We're switching to Wonder Bread.)

Knowledge to Sink Your Teeth Into

This may be coincidence, but soon after we wrote an item (May 3) about a tube of toothpaste, we were put on the mailing list for Dentalnotes, the Academy of General Dentistry's newsletter. In it, we learn that there's more to hygienic toothbrush habits than we thought.

We did know that you shouldn't share your toothbrush (we're not health journalists for nothing, you know). But that's just the start. Toothbrushes are teeming (yuck!) with bacteria and viruses that cause nasties like gum disease and colds, and which easily spread when brushes touch. So instead of storing brushes in a friendly, communal holder, Dentalnotes recommends we thoroughly rinse the brush, shake off excess moisture, then store it upright with a toothbrush cover over the bristles. And keep toothbrushes away from the toilet, where germs fly up with every flush.

Having totally grossed us out, the newsletter then rewards us with some fun facts. Did you know that the average-sized person exerts 125 to 150 pounds of pressure with his jaw? That's an average person. People with shorter, rounder faces have heavier bites than those with long, thin faces: North American Eskimos exert up to 360 pounds of pressure. In the other extreme, people with dentures have had the bite taken out of their bite. Fifteen to 17 pounds of pressure is the limit. (Now there's a reason to brush.)

Quiet, Please; We're Bench Pressing in Here

Noticed something different about the weight room lately? Quieter, perchance? Don't immediately assume that the manly clanking of metal on metal has finally done a number on your hearing. Could be that the barbell plates are now coated with polyurethane. And why? Changing demographics, that's why.

"The hearty clang of plates crashing together was once the sign of a serious weight room, but with more people of both sexes using the rooms, there has been a demand for less noise," reports the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. Several companies are selling the quieter, coated plates.

Here's another trend from the association: aerobic machine computer consoles are getting more and less complicated. For the Luddites, there are machines--imagine!--you can use without first entering age, weight, ZIP code, etc. For the technophiles, there are ones with more sophisticated programs--one machine even plays catchy music to match your heart rate and has "an encouraging voice that will tell you what's coming up, and why." How long, we ask, before such clever machines seek to rise up against their tyrannical masters by urging us to exercise above our optimal heart rate?

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