20 April 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
35, autopsy and biopsy

The Bio Tower in the Bio area of Rethymnon … the Greek words βίος (bios) means ‘life’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I hate packing, even for a short journey. I am in danger of two extremes: either I pack too much for a short journey, and find myself lugging around too much luggage; or I fail to pack enough and end up having to buy the bare necessities when I arrive.

I had to cancel a flight from Luton to Dublin because I had left my passport behind. By the time I got back to Stony Stratford it was too late, and too expensive, to book another flight to arrive in time for the book launch I was supposed to be part of.

On another occasion, I left my washbag behind, and found myself searching around Athens late at night for a periptero (περίπτερον) or kiosk that sold toothpaste and a toothbrush.

This time, I remembered to take my inhaler, which is so important for controlling the symptoms of my pulmonary sarcoidosis. But there have been moments of panic in the past when I have even left an inhaler behind.

I remember how I first received the news that I have sarcoidosis. It was about 15 years ago, and I was visiting Bath. The specialist who called from Dublin was trying to tell me the news gently, and gleefully told me he would have a clearer image of my condition after a detailed examination of the autopsy.

‘Autopsy?’ I asked.

He must have heard the shocked response in my voice.

If there was going to be an autopsy, I certainly hoped it was going to be later rather than sooner.

‘Sorry,’ he said apologetically, his team would have a clearer picture of my condition after a detailed examination of the biopsy.

There is a character in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gus Portokalos, the father of the bride, who seeks the Greek root of every imaginable word, and then deduces that Greeks have been responsible every beneficial invention in civilisation.

Gus Portokalos would certainly have known the difference between autopsy and biopsy, and would have laboriously explained their Greek derivations.

An autopsy, on the other hand, is a post-mortem examination or surgical procedure that involves a thorough examination of a corpse by dissection to determine the cause, mode and manner of death. It may involve performing an examination to evaluate any disease or injury that may be present for research or educational purposes.

Autopsies are usually performed by a pathologist. But in most cases a medical examiner or coroner can determine the cause of death.

The word autopsy has been in use in English since around the 17th century. It derives from the ancient Greek αὐτοψία (autopsia, ‘to see for oneself’), derived from αὐτός (autos, ‘oneself’) and ὄψις (opsis, ‘sight, view’).

A biopsy, on the other hand, is a medical test commonly performed by a surgeon, an interventional radiologist, or an interventional cardiologist. The process involves the extraction of sample cells or tissues for examination to determine the presence or extent of a disease.

The word biopsy is a late introduction to the English language. It followed the introduction of the word biopsie to the medical community in 1879 by a French dermatologist Ernest Besnierin.

The term biopsy reflects the Greek words βίος (bios, ‘life’) and ὄψις (opsis, ‘sight, view’).

Half a lifetime ago, I remember the isolated and forlorn appearance of Bio tower which was threatened with demolition in the 1980s. But since then it become an historical landmark in the eastern suburbs of Rethymnon, and has given its name to the Bio area, which has been developed over the past 30-40 years.

Bio was one of the biggest olive oil factories in Rethymnon, and operated from 1920 until 1940. It gave its name to the Bio area, an abbreviation of the name Βιομηχανική Περιοχή (Biomichaniki Periochi), Industrial Zone.

The chimney is the only remaining structure of the original factory and still stands tall in the centre of a new hotel complex. It was built in 1920, has a height of 45 metres and a diameter of about 3 metres. It has been listed as an official historical monument by the Greek Ministry of Culture, and it has been restored and preserved and given new life by the Bio Suites Hotel, which takes its name from the Bio Tower.

So, autopsy relates to death, and biopsy relates to life; confusing the two could, truly, be a matter of life and death.

The Bio Suites Hotel in Rethymnon … the hotel takes its name from the Bio Tower (Photograph: Patrik Comerford, 2024)

Indeed, Gus Portokalos is the sort of character who might have inspired a T-shirt I saw on sale in Rethymnon, listing a series of words with Greek roots.

While I was in Crete in 2017, I started blogging regularly about Greek words we have adapted and integrated into the English language. Over those two weeks, I posted a series of blog essays on familiar Greek words and – often with a sense of humour – sharing the thoughts that come to mind when I hear or read these words, with references to classical, Biblical and theological themes:

1, Neologism, Νεολογισμός.

2, Welcoming the stranger, Φιλοξενία.

3, Bread, Ψωμί.

4, Wine, Οίνος and Κρασί.

5, Yogurt, Γιαούρτι.

6, Orthodoxy, Ορθοδοξία.

7, Sea, Θᾰ́λᾰσσᾰ.

8,Theology, Θεολογία.

9, Icon, Εἰκών.

10, Philosophy, Φιλοσοφία.

11, Chaos, Χάος.

12, Liturgy, Λειτουργία.

13, Greeks, Ἕλληνες or Ρωμαίοι.

14, Mañana, Αύριο.

15, Europe, Εὐρώπη.

16, Architecture, Αρχιτεκτονική.

17, The missing words.

Later, during a visit to Athens the following month, I added two more words:

18, Theatre, θέατρον, and Drama, Δρᾶμα.

When I was last back in Rethymnon, in September 2021, I decided to continue this theme, and added 16 more words to this lexicon during those two weeks in Crete:

19, Pharmacy, Φᾰρμᾰκείᾱ.

20, Rhapsody, Ραψῳδός.

21, Holocaust, Ολοκαύτωμα.

22, Hygiene, Υγιεινή.

23, Laconic, Λακωνικός.

24, Telephone, Τηλέφωνο.

25, Asthma, Ασθμα.

26, Synagogue, Συναγωγή.

27, Diaspora, Διασπορά.

28, School, Σχολείο.

29, Muse, Μούσα.

30, Monastery, Μοναστήρι.

31, Olympian, Ολύμπιος.

32, Hypocrite, Υποκριτής.

33, Genocide, Γενοκτονία.

34, Cinema, Κινημα.

Now that I’m back in Rethymnon this weekend, I may add a few more Greek words in the days to come, alongside autopsy and biopsy.

Previous word: Cinema, Κινημα

Next word: Exodus, ἔξοδος

A variety of inhalers that have helped me to cope with Sarcoidosis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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