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shameless pleading

Medicine / Medication

Take two aspirin and call me a cab.

Dear Word Detective:  First there was “medicine,” a nice little noun meaning, in its concrete form, a pill, elixir, or ointment, or anything else that’s good for you (e.g., laughter).  Then came “medication,” which originally meant the act of “medicating” but somewhere along the line picked up the meaning of “medicine” (excluding the “anything else.”)  Now there’s “medicament,” which I understand is Latin, but why did we need a Latin word for something that we’ve already got two functioning words for? How did we get into this, pardon me, predicament? — Charles Anderson.

That’s a good question. But I wonder where you’re encountering “medicament” these days. Plugging the word into Google News produces more than 10,000 results, but almost all of them seem to be from French-language publications (which makes sense, given that “medicament” is French for “medicine”). Even the regular Google web results focus heavily on dictionary definitions at first, but then slide back into French web pages. My guess is that what you’ve encountered is some writers who, stuck with producing a few hundred words having something to do with medicine, started casting about for synonyms to relieve the monotony. It’s the same desperation for variety that drives some writers to use words like “eschew,” “prevaricate” and “pugilist.” (Other people use those words because they are pretentious twits.)

In any case, it all began with the Latin verb “medicare,” which means “to cure or heal.” The root of all the various “medical” words in English was the proto-Indo-European root “med,” which carried the sense of “to measure, consider, give advice” as well as “to heal” (and gave us the words “meditate” and “remedy,” among others). From “medicare” (or “medicari”) Latin developed “medicus” (physician), “medicina” (the work of doctors, which became “medicine,” in both the “field of study” and “healing substance” senses), and “medicationem,” healing agent or remedy, which became the English “medication” and “medicament.” Of the various words meaning “cure or drug,” the oldest is “medicine” (early 13th century), while “medicament” and  “medication” appeared roughly at the same time in the 15th century.

Interestingly, while both “medicine” and “medicament” had as their original meaning “a substance or preparation used in the treatment of illness; a drug; especially one taken by mouth” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), the original meaning of “medication” was, quite logically, “the action of treating medically” (OED), specifically treatment with a curative substance. It’s still often used in this way (Mr Miller …who has long been under medication for high blood pressure, had been ordered by his doctor to rest,” 1978).

However, by 1849, “medication” was also being used to mean the drug or medicine itself (“The doctor may recommend some medication to apply after nursing,” B. Spock, 1955). This marked a change in use of the word, and in 1934 the Merriam-Webster New World International Dictionary (M-W II) defined “medication” as “… a medicament.” So “medication” in its newer sense of “drug, remedy” supplanted, to a certain extent, the venerable “medicament.” The question remains, of course, of what’s wrong with just plain old “medicine.”

I think the answer may lie in the success of “medicine” as both a catch-all term for the broad field of medical science and as a dandy metaphor for things having nothing to do with actual doctors. Phrases such as “to take one’s medicine,” “a taste of your own medicine,” etc., made “medicine” a fairly vague and somewhat negative word. But the stern “medication” did not lend itself to catch phrases and carried an aura of science and precision the medical community wished to foster in the public mind. So doctors, et al., gravitated to “medication,” and that’s what you’ll hear on all those wretched pharmaceutical commercials. But those ads are not as obnoxious to my ear as the short form of “medication,” “meds,” which many people use when discussing their illnesses ad nauseam (“The docs have me on some new meds”). Those people could benefit from a prolonged course of leeches.

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