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HISTORY OF MEDICINE
Year : 2007  |  Volume : 8  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 114-116 Table of Contents     

The origin of Aorta Arabic versus Greek


M.D., F.A.C.C.; F.G.H.A., Chairman, Department of Cardiology and Cardiothoracic Surgery, Hamad Medical Corporation, Doha, Qatar; Adviser to His Highness for Health Affairs, Qatar; Founder and President, Gulf Heart Association (GHA), Arabian Gulf; Minister of Health, Qatar

Date of Web Publication17-Jun-2010

Correspondence Address:
H A Hajar Albinali
Chairman, Department of Cardiology and Cardiothoracic Surgery, Hamad Medical Corporation, Doha
Qatar
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


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How to cite this article:
Hajar Albinali H A. The origin of Aorta Arabic versus Greek. Heart Views 2007;8:114-6

How to cite this URL:
Hajar Albinali H A. The origin of Aorta Arabic versus Greek. Heart Views [serial online] 2007 [cited 2020 Nov 25];8:114-6. Available from: https://www.heartviews.org/text.asp?2007/8/3/114/63818

Could the word Aorta be derived from orta? Orta is a tree frequently mentioned in old Arabic poetry. I assumed for a long time that the anatomic term Aorta is derived from the name of that tree, but it is a difficult task to prove.

It is not my purpose in this article to claim that Arabic is superior to other languages. It is a fact that all human cultures exchange not only knowledge but also terminology through time. Some ancient verbal migration can not be traced by dictionary writers because they may have happened before the invention of writing or require knowledge of ancient writings. The Arabs took numerous words from other nations and incorporated them in their language over the time. Many nations incorporated Arabic words in their language also.

Since English is my second language I could detect some Arabic words in English. I do not think any one would deny that words such as alcohol, syrup, arsenal, zenith and mattress are Arabic in origin. It is easy to understand the incorporation of technical or industrial terms from the nation that invented or discovered it into a culture that imported it. But there are other common ancient words in both Arabic and English for which we have no explanation except that both are taken from older cultures. Otherwise, how could very old words like cave (cahaf), wine (wain: grape), tail (dail) and cat (kot) have similar pronunciation and similar meaning in both Arabic and English? The dictionary writers can only guess the origin in some cases. Most of us would prefer that the dictionary gives us an intelligent guess as to the origin rather than say "of unknown origin".

Merriam Webster Dictionary states that "Aorta is new Latin, from Greek aorte, from aeirein to lift". Online Etymology dictionary [1] gave more details:
"Aorta: from M.L. aorta, from Gk. aorte, term applied by Aristotle to the great artery of the heart, lit. "what is hung up," from aeirein "to raise," of unknown origin, related to the second element in meteor (falling stars). Used earlier by Hippocrates of the bronchial tubes".

So, the Greek philosopher Aristotle made up an anatomic term Aorte, from a Greek word of unknown origin which meant "to lift." This is not convincing to me at all. Orta is closer to Aorta than aeirein is to my ear.

There are anatomic words that Arabic speaking physicians added such as saphenous (from Arabic Saphin i.e. "Wanderer" because the saphenous vein is a long vein. Nuchal related to the back of the neck from Arabic Nakhal i.e. palm tree, because the anatomical structures of the muscles, arteries and veins arising from the neck vertebra looked like branches of a palm tree. But the term aorta was not made up by an Arab physician for sure. They took it from the Greek. The Arabs made up another Arabic term for the aorta which is Abhar, a term used for the middle feathers of a bird's wing that pass across the chest to the rear and visible even when the wing is closed. Another meaning of abhar is "in the middle". Both aorta and abhar were used in the old Arabic medical literature.

Why do I insist then that the term Aorta is Arabic or at least not Greek in origin? Let us turn to the tree, the orta tree. It was a well known desert tree to the Arabs over thousands of years and still is. It grows over sandy soil, profusely branched with bamboo-like sticks, 1.5 m tall but some are taller [Figure 1]. It has no real leaves but has very scanty hair-like fine filaments [Figure 2]. Desert animals such as camels (from Arabic Gamal) eat the filaments and the roots. Some animals like gazelle (from Arabic ghazal) use it as shelter. People use its wood as fuel and its root as medicine. They extract red coloring agent from the roots. The tree is called Calligonum Polygonoides, the scientific family name is POLYGONACEAE and the genus is Calligonum.

I always think of the Aorta when orta tree is mentioned in an old poem, like the famous poem of Dhu'Alrimmah (696-736A.D.). While preparing the scene for a wild hunt, he described a wild ox seeking shelter over the sand under an isolated orta tree on a drizzly night:

To the orta tree he came,

Warmth and shelter was his aim

Over the night he came to rest

To the orta he was a guest.

The name of orta tree reminds me of the Aorta because of the following reasons. The name of the tree - orta - sounds like Aorta. All the branches rise from one stick and looked like arterial branches [Figure 3]. The fruits are bright red in color like arterial blood [Figure 4]. The roots are red and very much look like arteries [Figure 5]& [Figure 6]. If the root is injured, red liquid comes out of it. It is very likely that the ancient Arabs or other ancient people in this area, who hunted animals hiding under the orta tree, saw the similarities between I enumerated above between the tree and the aorta inside the animal's chest that they have killed. They called that artery orti in their Semitic language such as Arabic which became ortic in Latin or European languages. Furthermore it may be logical to assume that both terms - aorta and artery - are derived from the same Semitic origin. Oxford Dictionary states that the origin of artery is Greek arteria. Online Etymology dictionary [1] added:
"Artery from O.Fr. artaire, from L. arteria, from Gk. arteria "windpipe," also "an artery," as distinct from a vein; related to aeirein "to raise".

The other possibility is that both the Arabs and the Greeks took the term from another civilization older than the Greek such as Babylonian or Egyptian civilization. Orta tree still exists in the desert of both Egypt and Iraq.

I could not find the name of orta tree in the old Egyptian language but it is unlikely that the name Aorta came from Egypt because the Egyptians did not separate arteries from veins or nerves. They lumped them all together and called them Metu [2] . The Egyptians thought that air was vital to life and to each organ of the body. It entered the body through the nose and traveled through the trachea directly into the heart. Air left the heart in the blood along with water, which was also essential to life. Together they traveled to each body organ through a series of ducts called "Matu." [2] This Egyptian concept of air mixing with the blood in the circulation was taken later by the Greeks. I found only one large vessel mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus. That could be the Aorta but they called it "Fasser". It states that "when the heart is struck, it is that vessel whose name is "Fasser" that does it; it gives water towards the heart or towards the eye when it is stopped up" [3] .

Therefore, I conclude with confidence that the Greeks did not derive the name of the Aorta from Egyptian even though they took many theories, concepts, therapies and probably some terms from the Egyptians.

I know that in both Arabic and English some anatomic terms have similar meaning and origin. The eye's pupil means "little girl" or "a boy" in English, and in Arabic Insan al ain, i.e., the "human of the eye". Why did the term have similar meaning in both languages? The online Etymology dictionary states:

Pupil, "center of the eye," (in L. form from 1398), from O.Fr. pupille, from L. pupilla, originally "little girl-doll," dim. of pupa "girl, doll" Gk. is said also to have used the same word, kore (lit. "girl"), to mean both "doll" and "pupil of the eye"1.

So, did we both take the term from Greek? No. Both the Arabs and the Greeks took it from the old Egyptians who called it "the girl of the eye" [4] . Another term is cataract. It is called "white water" in Arabic while in English (from L. cataracta "waterfall," from Gk. katarhaktes "swooping, rushing down," from kata "down" + arhattein "to strike hard.") [1] . Both Arabs and Greeks took the term from the ancient Egyptians who referred to cataract as "water rising" [4].

I wondered if the orta tree name could be found in other older civilizations like Mesopotamian civilization. I asked my friend the Syrian professor of history, Dr. Mohammed Harb Farazat, to help me, because he could read and understand cuneiform language and knows several languages. He found the name in his cuneiform dictionary of the Akkadian language (2000 B.C.). Orta was called Urtu: a small tree with good smell and branching roots [5] . This proved that the tree is known by the Babylonian with the same name as in Arabic, but it does not prove that the Greek took the name from them and used it for the Aorta. I have no reference to tell me what the Babylonians called the Aorta. My guess is urtu.

 
   References Top

1.Online Etomalogy dictionary http://www.etymonline.com.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Worth Estes j. The medical skills of Ancient Egypt. Watson publishing international 1989.  Back to cited text no. 2      
3.Bryan. C.P. The Ancient Egyptian Medicine The Papyrus Ebers. Ares Publishers inc. 1930.  Back to cited text no. 3      
4.Ghalionji, P. Qutoof min Tarikh Al tib, Dar Al maarif, Egypt.  Back to cited text no. 4      
5.Labat R. Manual epigraphia akkadienne #450.  Back to cited text no. 5      


    Figures

  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6]



 

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