Bill Casselman

Increase your understanding of the technical vocabulary of English medicine by learning the word origin of oxytocin

At the Wording Desk

In the friendly title painting above, by Giovanni da Milano from mid-14th century Florence, we are sure that Saint Anne, in giving birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary, did not have the use of synthetic oxytocin.

Oxytocin is a pituitary hormone in mammals with multiple body functions. Chiefly, oxytocin stimulates contraction of the smooth muscle of the uterus, thus facilitating childbirth. Distention of the cervix during birth triggers the release of oxytocin. Hence the name of this hormone contains the Greek word for childbirth, τόκος tokos, whose etymology and whose cognates in other languages we will examine in this short column. A synthetic oxytocin can be used to induce and accelerate labour and to reduce post-partum hemorrhage.

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Disambiguation: This column is NOT about the dangerous opioid and narcotic oxycotone used to treat severe pain and hugely, unwisely, often fatally, over-prescribed by bad, careless doctors under brand names like OxyContin, Oxaydo, Oxyfast, Roxicodone and Xtampza ER. Beware this dangerous poison and its mortal fake versions peddled by criminal drug dealers and medical quacks. Deaths due to overdoses of prescribed drugs are not always the patient's fault, in spite of what medical personnel say and write.
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Back to Oxycontin: inducer of childbirth
Upon stimulation of the nipples, oxytocin also helps induce lactatation by contracting the smooth muscles of the breasts' milk ducts. Oxytocin was immediately borrowed from the ancient Greek compound noun ὼκυτοκίνη ōkytokínē ‘quick birth’ (ὼκύς okys ‘quick, swift, speedy’ + τόκος ‘childbirth’).

Sexual orgasm also raises the oxytocin levels, promoting a pleasant euphoria and the impulse to fall asleep.
Oxytocic (ox-i-toe-sick)
The adjective oxytocic is also used as a noun in current medical literature as a general name for agents that terminate pregnancy, that is, abortifacients, showing up in lists like this: ecbolics, oxytocics and emmenagogues. Note that these are usually employed as medical "weasel" words designed to cover up the fact that an abortion is taking place in any place, live or in print where abortion is unpopular.

Are Sociopaths Low in Oxytocin?
Fascinating new studies probe the inability to secrete oxytocin as involved in lack of empathy for others, hence such an anoxytocic lack might be partially causative in criminal behaviour and other sociopathic symptoms.

Etymology of Tokos & Indo-European Related Words
Tokos τόκος can refer in Greek to the act of childbirth and it can also mean offspring or child. Literally tokos means ‘something begotten,’ being a noun from the verb τίκτειν tiktein ‘to bring forth progeny, (of trees) to fruit, tiktein being a reduplicative verbal form of tekein ‘to beget.’  The more common ancient Greek word for child, teknon, derived from this verb. The Greeks also used the verb to describe the making of interest from money, so that tiktein means ‘to accrue interest’ e.g. from a loan.

Word Relatives in Other Languages
Tokos is cognate with English thane/thegn, a servant, minister or disciple of Christ. English readers might remember the word in one of the titles of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Hail, Thane of Cawdor.” In that play, thane refers to a retainer who holds land on behalf of a Scottish king. Old English þegn meant ‘boy, servant, warrior.’ In Old Norse a thegn was a freeman. Its oldest root Germanic sense however was ‘boy,’ for thane is cognate with Greek teknos ‘boy’ and Sanskrit takman ‘child.’

Other English Words from Greek Tokos
These terms are, for the most part, from science, from medicine, particularly from obstetrics. Some are now rare.

A TKD is used to measure uterine contractions. Tokodynamometer = tokos ‘childbirth’ + dynamis ‘power’  + metron ‘measuring device.’

 Tocology is still found as a somewhat high-falutin’ synonym for midwifery, although it is a better synonym for obstetrics with its literal meaning of ‘the scientific study and practice of childbirth.’

The occasional psychology text carries the word tocophobia, abnormal dread in women of giving birth.

Tocography is the recording of uterine contractions.

Quite rare is mogitocia ‘difficult delivery of a baby’ < μόγις ‘with difficulty.’  The more usual obstetrical term today for abnormally difficult childbirth is dystocia or dystokia.

More common is the adjective ditokous meaning ‘giving birth to twins’ with the Greek di- combing form meaning ‘two.’

There is a manganese mineral called neotocite named because it is a product of earlier rocks weathering and thus is more recently ‘born’ so-to-speak. Greek νεότοκος neotokos ‘newborn, recent’ < Greek νέος neos ‘new’ + τόκος tokos ‘child.’

In Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology, and in the upper clouds of the Higher Anglicanism, one name for the Virgin Mary is Theotokos ‘the one who gave birth to God’ < Greek θεός theos ‘god’ + τόκος tokos ‘one who brings forth.’

 Now, while we loll serenely upon this unaccustomed nimbus of religiosity, let us take our pious leave and skim aloft on pristine wings, borne upon the zephyrs of an improbable salvation.

Bill Casselman, February 23, 2017

Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


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