Educated North Americans know the word in the title of composer George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a brilliant, breezy transforming of jazz riffs and motifs into orchestral concert form, a musical rhapsody on the sounds and feelings of New York City living, everything from squawking taxi klaxons to the exultant joy of skyscraper viewing via neck-crane, to spinning in the Scylla and Charybdis of Manhattan’s whirling, oceanic Roaring Twenties.

Rhapsody as a free-form single composition or fantasia based on some Romantic inspirational topic belongs to German and English musical criticism of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, for example Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies” or Delius’ rhapsody “Brigg Fair” based on an older English folk-tune.

But the word harks all the way back to Homer where a rhapsodist was one who stitched songs together and recited or chanted them for an audience, thrumming a lyre as he intoned the tale. Yes, the Iliad and the Odyssey were “chanted” or sung to the audience.


varieties of plucked-string instruments in ancient Greece

Rhapsody's Aptness

This stitching word (related to the Greek verb ῥάπτειν rhaptein ‘to sew’) fits perfectly with the mode of acquisition of tales that eventually produced the ancient Greek poem of an epic homeward journey, The Odyssey. Scholars now think each episode of Odysseus’ travel tales may have begun as a factual, realistic account of some extraordinary happening passed as oral history around a distant Hellenic campfire. Soon travelling bards heard these fireside adventure stories and improved them, adding wonder, magic and awe, then wove and stitched them together as a rhapsody (ῥάπτειν rhaptein ‘to sew’) into a longer narrative.

One theme in the Odyssey was a nostos, Greek ‘a set of daring adventures lived through on a long voyage home.’ Consider the original meaning of nostalgia ‘painful memories of home’ from Greek νόστος nostos ‘home’ + Greek -αλγία -algia ‘pain.’  Nostalgia is not an ancient Greek coinage. It is a modern, New Latin neology arising from a scholarly loan translation of the German word for homesickness Heimweh (literally in German home-pain) into its Greek-root equivalents.

Stately Measures Indeed!

These ancient rhapsodists cast the derring-do of the hero into poetic metre and commenced slowly through generations to produce what we possess today: one of the great polished epics of humanity, to sit beside our reverence for Homer, who was, as another poet, Tennyson, said of Roman Virgil, “wielder of the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man.”

Ancient Greek ῥαψῳδία rhapsoidia ‘epic poem recitation at one hearing and sitting’ is literally a weaving together of different songs, from ῥάπτειν rhaptein ‘to sew, stitch together’ + ἀοιδή or ᾠδή aōidē or oide ‘ode, song’ from the verb ἀείδειν aeiden ‘to sing.’

Cognate words include Greek rhepein ‘to bend,’ rhapis ‘rod,’ the Viking word orf ‘handle of a scythe,’ Old High German worf ‘handle of scythe’ and Lithuanian verpti ‘to spin.’

Cognate in a Modern Anatomical Name
 A related form that appears in Modern English includes the anatomical term raphe ‘seam, suture’ from ancient Greek ῥαϕή cognate with ῥάπτειν rhaptein ‘to sew.’ For example, the seam-like ridge that runs around the scrotum with one testicle on each side of the seam is the scrotal raphe.


The scrotal raphe is part of the perineal raphe, visible evidence of humans being bilaterally symmetrical. Wikipedia continues the definition: “In men, this raphe continues through the midline of the scrotum (scrotal raphe) and upwards through the posterior midline aspect of the penis (penile raphe). It is the result of a fetal developmental phenomenon whereby the scrotum (the developmental equivalent of the labia in females) and penis close toward the midline and fuse.” Many a boy — and quite a few girls — have seen the seam-line under the penis.

Here’s another informative quotation: “This is called the scrotal raphe and every boy has one which extends from his bum (perineal raphe) up to the tip of his foreskin (penile raphe), though it is more prominent in some boys than others. When you are developing in the womb, you start off with all the cells to make you into a girl. About 7 weeks after conception, the Y chromosome kicks in and this converts your ovaries into testicles. The clitoris and inner labia become your penis and the outer labia fuse together to form your scrotum. The raphe is the seam where these parts fuse together.”

Rockin' good news! That ought to make a few sexist, dick-wagging studs quiver!

Other English Medical Terms from this Root
Several other medical terms for suturing procedures are known to some patients, like episiorrhaphy, herniorrhaphy, palatorrhaphy and rhinorrhaphy.
Quail not at the complex appearance of these medical words! I’m going to explain them so you will always know their meanings and how to pronounce them in English.

The ancient Greek etyma or roots are ῥαϕή rafee ‘seam, suture, a line showing where items have been sewn together’ from the basic verb ῥάπτειν rhaptein ‘to sew, to stitch together’ giving the longer action-noun suffix -ρραϕία –rrhapia ‘a stitching, a sewing, a mending of tears and rips.’

Most common, known to many mothers, is episiotomy, a surgical cutting of the perineum to permit easier passage of an infant’s head during childbirth and crowning, when the baby’s head is first visible. The subsequent repairing of any perineal cuts may be referred to as an episiorrhaphy ‘sewing up wounds in the pubic area.’ Episiorrhaphy may also refer to sewing in place a prolapsed uterus. From Greek ἐπίσειον episeison ‘groin, pubic region’ + - ῥαϕή rafee ‘seam, suture’
 Also commonly known is herniorrhaphy, the surgical repair by suturing of a hernia, that is, any abnormal hole in a body cavity.

Palatorrhaphy is the surgical correction of a cleft palate by suturing.

During a “nose job,” one of the operations performed by plastic surgeons may be a rhinorrhaphy in which excess nasal tissue is cut out and the wound edges are sutured (sewn) together.

 Common English Verb Cognate with Raphe & Rhapsody
The Germanic cognate of Greek raphe appears in a common English verb to wrap, seen in Middle English wrappen, in Danish vravle ‘to twist together,’ Middle Dutch lappen ‘to wrap up,’ Middle Low German wrempen ‘to wrinkle, scrunch the face,’ and Greek rhaptein ‘to stitch together, to sew,” ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *werp- ‘to turn, wind’ from PIE root *wer-‘to turn, bend.’

So, my eager verbivores, we have journeyed from epic poetry to lowly scrotum; and for today, that’s a wrap.

Bill Casselman, March 22, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


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Increase your English medical vocabulary by learning a Greek root that opens several medical terms

Bill Casselman