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Etymology of ‘Cancer’

For anyone born between June 22 and July 21, the western zodiac can bring up some curious questions. For one, “How did I end up being named after a deadly disease?” and another, “What does cancer have to do with crabs?”

Ask these questions to an English speaker, and they might reply, “It’s all Greek to me.” And they’d be right. Our English word¬†cancer comes from the ancient Greek word karkinos meaning ‘crab’.¬† The constellation Cancer (resembling a clawed creature) a is a member of the zodiac, a group of constellations which the Sun passes through along the ecliptic.

So if cancer means ‘crab’, then what does a malignant tumor have to do with crabs? Well according to Hypocrites, the Godfather of Medicine, tumors very much resemble crabs. There is debate over which aspect of the crab ancient oncologists ascribed to tumors, but Howard Markel, a historian of medicine, reports that it could have been anything from the ‘hard shell’ of tumors, to the ‘pinching’ pain of tumors, to even the ‘stubbornness’ of the unfortunate malady which reminded these doctors of a crab.

So if you June/July births have ever wondered why you were named after ‘the c word’, don’t fret because cancer was actually named after you!