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Enkephalitis … Перельман is my homeboy … Obstipation 14th of June, 2010 POST·MERIDIEM 04:56

Minor language detail that I haven’t seen documented elsewhere, so I may as well write it up here. In English, in RCSI and as far as I can tell in the other medical schools in Ireland, the Greek root ‘ceph’ (from κεφαλή, ‘head’), is usually pronounced as /kɛf/. So ‘anencephaly’ is /ænənˈkɛfəlɪ/, ‘cephalosporin’ is /ˈkɛfælɔspoʊɹɪn/. One example of encephalitis written to reflect this spelling, by someone who’s apparently not a medic, is here; the original poster writes the word ‘enkephalitis’. The OED doesn’t list this pronunciation at all, so I’ve no idea of its age.

On another subject entirely, for any nerds who remain reading this, it occurred to me back in aught-six, after reading this, that the world needs a tshirt that says “Перельман is my homeboy”, in the same spirit as the comic’s “Knuth is my homeboy” shirt. All these years later, to that end, zazzle.ie have such a tshirt; surprisingly difficult to achieve, given most of the online tshirt templating places don’t accept Cyrillic text!

Word of the day: obstipation has nothing to do with fruit; instead, it means constipation that is so serious the patient can’t pass wind.


Irish paediatricians should be asking themselves why girls get enkevalitis rather than enbridgetalitis.

Last week on Have I Got News For You, in the middle of some banter about a squid, Penny Smith said the word /kephalopod/, so the pronunciation is out there in the wild to some degree.

Hi, by the way :)

The route of the pronunciation of this word, which you probably know but I’ll recap, is: Greek K pronounced ’K’; Latin C pronounced ’K’; Late Latin/Romance C pronounced ’S’ (before ’E’ at least.) Therefore the ’K’ pronunciation is wrong and it should be S. I only recall hearing a K pronunciation once; it doesn’t seem to be too prominent.

The problem is a more general one. Since English has no language academy to rule on such matters, errors creep in. Common sense often fixes them, but in esoteric fields like medicine, they occasionally aren’t. Remember that students are taking language directly from a tradition that stretches back to the Greeks. Common or garden pronunciations don’t come into it.

In the case of any other language that I’m aware of, you would simply refer the matter to the academy, who would rule on it and the dictionaries, media, and man on the street would accept the ruling. This situation is known as prescriptive grammar and spelling.

The Anglosphere doesn’t have anything like this. The OED and Webster’s dictionaries could set an example by specifying correct pronunciations and deleting incorrect or obscure ones, but they do not. They see their role as largely passive; they allow the collective actions of English speakers to guide the dictionary definitions (which is the correct approach as definition is a semantic issue) and pronunciations (which is not as these are a functional issue).

Personally I don’t agree with this, but it’s a very firmly established concept in the Anglosphere.

The only other example of ’CE’ as ’KE’ that I know of is our good selves - the Celts.

Hey Jonathan, good to see you around here! :-) For my purposes, given that I’m talking to medics in Ireland, the /k/ pronunciation is correct, but I’m certainly not going to attempt to export it once I leave the country, English spelling doesn’t need any more exceptions.

There used to be a parallel and curious coëxistence of Enzephalitis and Enkephalitis in German, though I think the former won out.

interesting discussion on word root origins

very thought provoking cupping therapy

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