Monday, July 10, 2006

Instead of learning pharmacokinetics...

... I've been reading the dictionary. And a damn fine read it is too.

(This is going to make me sound like an utter geek, but...one of my two clearest memories from my pre-teen years is lying in bed at night playing a game I had invented with the dictionary, where you would pick a word at random, and read the definition, then read the salient words in that definition and so on, until you had "tricked" the dictionary into a circular definition. I did this while other kids talked to their friends.

And the other clear memory is my grandmother burning it, along with all my superhero comics, when I was nine, because I spent too much time reading. I still remember the concrete trough kind of thing the fire was in, and the old Federal comics issues, the one where the Human Torch fights Plant Man, the clear strong lines of artwork curling in the flames...

But I'm over it now. Completely banished from my mind. No, at least they can't say I'm bitter...).

And Sarah's family have this wonderful old two volume set, either the Shorter Oxford or the Less Massive Cambridge, books that will rupture your biceps if you try to hold them with one hand, cornucopias where every page has a word you'd never seen before.

Two of my favourites are

Kern - a lightly armed Irish footsoldier, noted for his ferocity. Alternatively, a yokel.

and

Postulant - a candidate for admission into a religious order.

Thus, I am an emergency medicine postulant who spends his days treating amphetamine withdrawal in kerns.

But - the dictionary. This is no ordinary dictionary, this is Stedman's Medical Dictionary, 26th edition. While allegedly revising the mechanism of muscular contraction, I glimpsed the word myophone, and for a few moments everything else stopped.

Myophone: An instrument to enable one to hear the murmur of muscular contractions.
From the Greek "myo" for muscle, and "phone" for sound.

One word, ten thousand questions. What does a contracting muscle sound like? Who invented the myophone? What constellation of signs and symptoms would cause a doctor pull out a myophone ("Now, just contract your muscle, Mr Smith...")? What did the device actually look like - was it some elegant combination of brass bell and rubber tubing, something native to the nineteenth century, and now relegated to the same dusty rooms as the phrenology head and the clyster? Or was it a nineteen fifties device - bulky white boxes on a laboratory bench, a screen with oscillating green lines, reel-to-reel magnetic tape?

And further on - the word root "osmo-"

Osmo-: to do with smell, or with osmosis.

Ignoring osmosis for the moment, the "osmo means smell" prefix gives us

osmodysphoria: an abnormal dislike of certain odours.

osmogram : This is not a strong-smelling singing telegram, but comes from the Greek osme, meaning smell, and gramma, meaning a drawing].

Another mind-boggling idea. A drawing of a smell. If that doesn't stimulate your mind, you are clinically dead.

It is, in fact, an "electronegative wave of potential occurring on the surface of the olfactory epithelium in response to stimulation by an odour" - a map of the way a smell changes the voltage on the skin of certain cells on the inside of the nose.

Someone who apparently spent a lot of time studying this was Ottoson, and it is in his or her honour that the osmogram is sometimes called the Ottoson potential.

An osmogram is also known as an electro-olfacto-gram , abbreviated as an EOG: if you are ever wheeled in with central crushing chest pain, and the junior doctor treating you insists on one of these, rather than the more common ECG, stagger to your feet and run.

An osmophore - now this is a remarkable idea. An osmophore is the group of atoms in the molecule of a compound that is responsible for the compound's characteristic odor. If you had cinnamon osmophores on your finger, and stuck your finger up your nose, your finger would smell of cinnamon. Osmoreceptors in your nose are like locks, osmophores on molecules of smelly things are like keys, when the key fits in the lock, voltages change, ions flow, a nerve fires, and your brain smells the smell of a madeleine soaked in tea - and you know the rest.

Osmology is the study of odors, their production, and their effects, a term somehow less impressive than the synonym osphresiology.

And an osmometer is an apparatus for measuring the acuteness of the sense of smell... in what?

What the hell, you are asking, are the units of smell? I read in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) a few years back that this is the Olf, which is defined as the smell emission derived from a standard non-smoking person having 0.7 baths per day.

Anyway. My academic career will be measured in the kiloolfs if I don't get on with pharmacokinetics.

Thanks for listening. Tomorrow I am replying to comments, for which many thanks.
John

9 Comments:

Blogger Benedict 16th said...

You cunning linguist (sorry an oldie but a goodie)

Benedict

PS
My favourite medical words are
Steatopygia (I stumbled on this one when looking up Stearorrhoea in my Stedmans)
Borborygmi (or borborygmus for just one)
Titubation (no you won't go blind)
Unguiculate

ad nauseum...


PPS How may body parts can you name that are only 2 letters long...
(besides os)

10:44 PM  
Blogger Prom said...

If you like Osmophore you'll like glucophore as well. That's what I study along with how they fit into their receptor.

12:07 AM  
Anonymous John said...

'PP' ?, that's only 2 inches long. Oh, sorry, "2 letters long". Duh!! Okay, now I'm embarrassed......

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Camilla said...

This is a brilliant entry, I loved it! I like trawling the dictionary too, but I've never tried the game you mention. I'm going to give it a go with my trusty Macquarie. I'll also look out for an older dictionary in the second hand bookshops, bound to be loads of good words there. It'd be fun to write a whole entry using really archaic words for everyday things :D

Yeah ok, sign me up for the Geek Language Classes :P

(*utptn* - what you do the night before garbage pick-up? "I'll be back in a mo, dear - just utptn the rubbish!")

7:21 PM  
Blogger Prom said...

I just ran across another good word: atelophobia - fear of imperfection

12:48 AM  
Blogger cupcakegrrl said...

I can't believe your grandmother burned your dictionary!

What was she like?

3:49 AM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

Burning a dictionary is just wrong. At the same time, I'm glad you've recovered (as much as anyone could).

12:01 PM  
Blogger Benedict 16th said...

Did you see, miracles still do happen, the Dockers beat the Collywobbles.
Poor old Eddie must have other things to worry about.

Benedict

4:30 PM  
Blogger Niamh Sage said...

Camilla here. I made a blogspot account so I could keep all my blogspot mates together in one place (and force you all to socialise, bwaahhahahaha!!).

Anyway...I just wanted to let you know so you'd know who this weird Niamh Sage person is, who's leaving comments.

7:13 PM  

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