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nanocreturns in medievalstudies


Can anyone verify or refute the popularly assumed etymological link between the leech, i.e. Hirudo medicinalis and the A-S word for physician.

It is embarrassing me that I cannot actually determine the relationship myself. My MA was based on Anglo-Saxon medicine, and my PhD will be as well, yet I have never encountered a remedy that suggests the use of an invertebrate or wyrm in phlebotomy, yet people I talk to about my topic (especially physicians) automatically assume that medieval "leeches" were called after Hirudo medicanalis due to their use in phlebotomical procedures.

Having surveyed everything in Cockayne's leechdoms, I would personally imagine that the parasitic invertebrate was named after the physician's habit of bloodletting, rather than the other way around.

I would be delighted if someone could point me in the direction of amy philological or historical evidence to substantiate either side of this problem.


Well, there's always the OED. Here's their etymology and first definition for leech in the sense of 'physician':

[OE. læce str. masc. (once læca wk.), corresponds to OFris. (dative) letza, leischa, OHG. lâhhi, MSw. läkir (Da. læge; ON. has the cognate læknir, and mod.Sw. läkare, from the vb. läka to heal), Goth. lêkeis:--OTeut. *lækjo-z:--pre-Teut. *lēgio-s; the synonymous Irish liaigh (OIr. liaig, dat. pl. legib) is app. related in some way.]

1. A physician; one who practises the healing art.
Now arch. (chiefly poet.) or jocular; often apprehended as a transferred use of LEECH n.2 In the 17th c. it was applied in ordinary prose use only to veterinary practitioners, and this sense survives in some dialects. (See also the combs. bullock-leech, cow-leech, HORSE-LEECH, etc.)

The OED seems to think

[OE. læce, Kentish lýce str. masc. = MDu. lake (Kilian laecke, lijck-laecke, mod.Flemish lijklake), lieke, leke fem.
Commonly regarded as a transf. use of LEECH n.1; this is plausible, but the forms OE. lyce, early ME. liche, MDu. lieke, suggest that the word was originally distinct, but assimilated to læce LEECH n.1 through popular etymology.]

So you needn't be that ashamed, because it really doesn't seem to be clear. The earliest citations for both senses occur in the tenth century, and some of the citations that refer to Hirudo medicanalis do look like they are about medical usages (there are two 16th-century sources that seem pretty clear on that)...
Dammit. I forgot to finish a sentence there. That was supposed to say something like "The OED seems to think that the parasite more likely acquired its name from 'leech' = 'physician' rather than the other way round."

Me too! Me Too!

I can't really add to this. I looked into this problem out of curiousity four or five years ago and found nothing beyond the lack of clarity of the OED. I'd have to agree with them though: the forms suggest that they were distinct words in Proto-Germanic, and even in other W. Germanic languages, but phonologically became homonyms, which may have given rise to the folk etymology. That's my theory and I'm stickin' to it.
Thanks angevin2.

Ever since I switched from a student computer account to a staff computer account in my University I haven't been able to figure out how to access a whole load of resources incuding the OED.

From what I can gather, the parastic leech wasn't used medicinally until at least the 16th century, so the mixed-up etymology theory fits will.