Bill Casselman

 At the Wording Desk

words like Gutter derived from Latin gutta meaning 'drop, droplet'

Gutta and Guttae and Guttatim
The Latin word for a drop of liquid is gutta. From gutta stem English words like gout, gutter and guttersnipe.

Pharmaceutical Confusion

When doctors and pharmacists knew Latin well, prescriptions and their instructions were written in Latin shorthand, some of which survives to cause drug mix-ups to this day.

There is no excuse to write on medical prescriptions confusing Latin short-forms. For example, a drop can be written as gt. or gtt., standing for the Latin singular noun gutta. A posological instruction like “drops” may be abbreviated as gts. or gtts., standing for the Latin plural guttae. What does “three drops in a glass of water” actually mean to some palsied sclerotic or paretic yoyo wearing a Batman mask slumped by the bedside and trying to dose himself? A drop may mean to him a slosh of water from a large glass or half a liter poured out in dementia. Still seen in the more recondite medical literature is the Latin dispensing adverb guttatim ‘drop by drop.’ That can be abbreviated as gttt. Three ts! What needless bother! Just write ‘drops’ for corn sakes! you might object. But there is a problem too with the simple instruction “by drops.”

That’s a Real Poser
By the way, posology is the branch of pharmacy or medicine that deals with the administration of doses, the quantity and frequency of dosage. Its root is the ancient Greek interrogative adjective πόσος posos ‘how much,’ akin to its Latin equivalent quotus ‘of what number, how many,’ from which English gets the word quota.

What’s Wrong with Writing “Drops”?
‘Drops’ is utterly unscientific — especially sloppy and dangerous as a chart instruction for IV medications, as we are reminded by this warning note from Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (F.A. Davis Company; Philadelphia, PA; 1993): “Gutta, plural guttae — a medical/pharmaceutical term. But not an accurate measurement of liquid. The amount in a drop varies with the nature of the liquid, its viscosity, its temperature, its specific gravity, its elevation above sea level, etc, etc. It is, therefore, not advisable to use the number of drops per minute of a solution as anything more than a general guide to the amount of material being administered intravenously.”

In botany, a leaf may be guttate, that is, dotted with drop-like spots of colour.

It was a narrow-necked Roman terra cotta cruet or oil flask by which liquids could be poured out drop by drop, hence its name. A guttus was used in sacrifices to dispense sanctified oil and also to store scented olive oil used to anoint Roman bathers after they emerged from the baths.

Latin proverb
Gutta fortunae prae dolio sapientiae.
‘A drop of luck is better than a vat of wisdom.’

From Latin gutta ‘drop’ the word entered the earliest Old French as gute, goute, modern French goutte. In French arose a word for spout or nozzle or water trough, gutiere or goutiere, modern French gouttière. Middle English borrowed the French word as goter or gotere, which became modern English gutter.

The common modern English meanings are:
1. A channel beside a street to bear away rain or surface water
2. A metal trough under the eaves of a roof to carry off rain
3. A channel for carrying something off; such as the gutter on the side of a bowling lane, to bring balls back to the bowler
4. The gutter on a page of print is white space formed by the inner margins of two facing pages, as of a book.
5. Squalid class of human beings or their existential state; the lowest sewer of humanity. From this last meaning arose –

First guttersnipe referred to a bird, the English snipe, which frequents mucky, marshy places, then it named a poor child who haunts street gutters seeking refuse or food scraps, and thence a person of the lowest class.

Guttersnipe was used memorably in one of Winston Churchill’s Second World War radio speeches. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Winnie went on BBC Radio and described Hitler as “this blood-thirsty guttersnipe.” After the war, “reformed” Nazis who had been in attendance upon the Führer in his comic-opera aerie atop Brechtesgaden reported that Herr Hitler was so furious at Churchill’s insults that he actually danced in fury, leaping up and down, at Winnie’s exquisite putdowns of the evil Nazi gangster.

Gout is a disease in which too much uric acid gets into the blood stream; razorlike crystals of sodium urate then accrete in the smaller joints, especially that of the great toe causing screamingly painful inflammation. If the inflammation is not treated medically, gout can spread to larger joints and internal organs.


James Gillray (1757 - 1815) was one of the most influential political caricaturists in British history. As a result of his heavy drinking, Gillray suffered from gout throughout his later life. People who have shared his affliction often comment that this Gillray etching about the pain of gout is one of the best and most imaginative illustrations of that agony ever drawn.

The Theory of Humours
The English language inherited the medical word gout from Old French goute ‘drop.’ Its name depends on the now utterly discredited theory of humours that ruled medicine in error for more than 2,000 years. Ancient practitioners of “physick” believed that bad, watery humours (bodily liquids) sank drop-by-drop (goute par goute) in a sick body and collected in the gout-plagued foot joints causing pain and swelling.

In a nutshell — O apt metaphor! — humorism taught that the human body was filled with four basic liquids: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. When this quartet of liquid goodies was in balance, one was healthy. When one liquid predominated, illness and disease ensued.

Essentially, this theory of humours held that the human body was filled with four basic substances, called four humours, which are in balance when a person is healthy. All diseases and disabilities resulted from an excess or deficit of one or more of these four humors. The four humors were identified as black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. There are many words that originated in humouralism. I’ll mention just one. An excess of black bile was said to make one sadder and depressed. The Greek for this black bile was – melancholia: μελαγχολία = μέλας melas Greek ‘black’ + χολή kholé Greek ‘bile’.

Too much phlegm made one lethargic, lazy, and slow – hence the now learned adjective phlegmatic.

Gutta as Architectural Term
Among my favorite users of arcane gibberish are those who compose architectural dictionaries. Read this snooty definition of a gutta in architecture: “Pendent ornament resembling the frustrum of a truncated cone attached inferiorly triglyphically under the soffits of the mutules and regulae of the architrave in the Greek Doric Order.”

Oh, well. Why didn’t you just say so? I myself often keep a wee guttule under the soffit of my mutule – at least until I hear the police tapping gently on my chamber door and cooing "Come out, come out, wherever you are, you guttulous reprobate!"

In reference to architectural dictionaries a picture of a gutta is — believe me — worth a thousand words.



Guttae were supposed to repel rainwater and help rain run off the ancient buildings. Water, it was hoped, would drip over the guttal edges, away from the building.

Some analysts of ancient Greek architecture suppose that carved stone guttae represent wooden pegs used in the construction of the wooden edifices that preceded the familiar stone buildings of later Greek history.

Well, that’s it, folks. Gutta go now.

But, before we effect a nifty exitus, check out this pertinent note from a reader:

Dear Mr. Casselman,
I enjoy your posts! As an architecture grad, I had to endure many insufferably opaque discussions and definitions such as the one you noted for guttae, so I
had a good laugh. 

There is an alternative and much more colorful possible origin of guttae, as well as for many of the elements of classical temples, put forward by George Hersey in The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture: Speculations on Ornament from Vitruvius to Venturi (MIT Press, 1988). His general hypothesis is that Greek
temples are the stone representations of earlier sacrifice-in-sacred-grove rituals, where the bits of animal that were sacrificed were bound up or strung around to decorate the grove to 'reconstruct' and thus honor the victim. So that dentils really were strings of teeth,
bucrania were literal ox-heads, astragalos the knucklebones, eggs and claws really eggs and claws, rostra were beaks, triglyphs the 'thrice-chopped' and bound thighbones, and guttae the drips of blood coming
out of the bottom triglyphs. A bit gorier than just the 'frustrum of a truncated cone.... etc'. 

We may never know whether Hersey's speculation is true, but it's much more fun to think about when considering all the Greek-revival portals attached to all the typical New England churches around me. Wouldn't they all be horrified to know the gory pagan origins of what they thought were just expressions of 'democracy'!
Robin Willcox

Thanks, R. Willcox. Well, enough time spent in the gutta. For my fellow squalid squatters in the gutter of time’s flow, I offer possibly dubious compensatory solace from Oscar Wilde who once wrote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Bill Casselman,

April 26, 2016

To email me, return to HOME page.