The Grammar Nazi Asks: what are the etymological roots of Cancer and Oncology ?

Oh, such a pathetic excuse for a liberal arts major, having been diagnosed with cancer over 3.5 years ago, I’ve not asked myself about the origins of the nouns associated with my disease, specifically the two super-topics of cancer and oncology. I vaguely recall reading them in the book, The Emperor of All Maladies . However, etymology did not garner my interest at that time, since we are, at heart, self interested, I sped up to the concepts most relative to my disease.

Answer: the Greeks gave birth to “cancer”
Karkinos, began, so the most agreed upon etymological story of the word, with Hippocrates about 35 BC. There’s many versions of the crab metaphor given the sluggish Ancient Greek press and of course we’d not know anything about the Library at Alexandria prior to its burning down taking with its embers, all of its words of wisdom. Forget about an Urban Greek BC dictionary to consult. Karkinos stuck as the common umbrella name for all the cancers at that time. And people with Karkinos who mostly presented at a very late stage were told to go back to their huts to die.

Tying up this etymological loose end, occurred about 47 AD by Celsus, a Greco-Roman philosopher, who translated the original Greek into the Latin for crab, or Cancer.

…and then came the etymology of “oncology.”
The word Oncology comes from the Greek as well: onkos as in a burden, or more specifically, a heavy mass. However, Galen, the Greek physician, applied the name onkos to all tumors around 200 AD and thus to the study or treatment of cancer, oncology. In the Greek theater, an onkos is the name for a tragic mask worn by an actor to identify a physical burden. Actors wear onkos to this day when acting in Greek plays. Tragedy? Perhaps…

Oncology recapitulates etymology. Or is it etymology recapitulates oncology… well either way, I now have a vague understanding of the vague understandings that historically exist, whether true or fictionalized.


Female. East coast transplant living in the Bay Area of California. Living with Stage IV breast cancer. Married to the coolest guy in the universe who occasionally suffers from serious depression. Love my stepsons, although I never thought I'd have that thankless job - ever! And my best friend Simon is also my cat. How I have survived with stage IV: treatments including chemo and surgery; palliative oncology; tenacity; a dark sense of humor; support groups; and my newly reinvented career as a vintage and antiques maven. Some days I miss the old me who led a well respected and well paid life as a business strategist in high tech. So much for that. I blog to simply share my experiences and my poetic approach with others who have cancer of any kind or with their care givers and those who love them. If one person at the very least finds a little commonality or a friend out in the ether tor a smile, a common nod about this experience, or even a link to assistance, then I have accomplished a small but extraordinarily meaningful goal. Go team.

2 thoughts on “The Grammar Nazi Asks: what are the etymological roots of Cancer and Oncology ?

  1. The book Blameless in Abadan had a character with terminal cancer who thought about the crab eating at his thigh bones each morning.

    I wish you luck. My mother is a breast cancer survivor over twenty years now.

    1. Thank you for sharing both the metaphor – a great one at that, and for the hope that a 20-year survivor brings to us all. I’ll keep that in my mind should I find myself feeling less hopeful and more helpless than I normally do. ITs fantastic to know about people who are thrivers.

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