My Latin students never know what’s in store for them. Some days it’s a tedious review of demonstrative pronouns, and other days a fascinating account of my medical problems. Today they heard about my feet.
That’s because yesterday I received a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis. This common ailment (“All your neighbors and friends have already told you what you have, right?” the podiatrist said) afflicts hard-training athletes and also older people–guess which category I’m in–and causes a stinging pain in the sole of the foot, particularly the heel. It hurts like heck when your feet hit the floor in the morning. I walked too much in thin-soled sandals this summer, especially on our vacation, and inflicted this problem upon myself. “Fascia’s probably a Latin word, isn’t it?” the doctor mused, after chatting for a moment about my job, thereby providing me with an etymology lesson for my class today.
We began with planta, the Latin word for the sole of the foot. Some of the students had heard of plantar’s warts. I asked if they could see a connection between the sole of the foot and plants, as in green things growing in your garden. The verb to plant actually makes the connection clearer. The gardener digs a little and then covers the seeds using the sole of his or her foot. The planta plants things.
What about an auto plant? Why do we sometimes call factories plants? Because, my students figured out, they produce things, like a plant growing in nature. That pretty much covers the plantar in plantar fasciitis.
Then, we moved on to –itis. Many students already knew this suffix means inflammation. These Greek-derived medical morphemes are useful to know. An –ema is a swelling (emphysema), a –pathy is a disease (cardiopathy), and a –rrhea is a discharge, for which you presumably can provide your own example. It’s good for you to know what an –ectomy is before your surgeon picks up a knife.
In English, the fascia of fasciitis refers to the sheath of ligaments that connect the heel to the arch and toes of the foot. In Latin, fascia means a bundle or band (or even bandage). So plantar fasciitis means the sheath of ligaments in the sole of my foot are inflamed. (And a Spanish fajita sheathes the savory fillings inside.)
This information provokes another question. What about the fasces, the symbol of Roman power? The emperor’s minions carried these bundles of sticks with an ax sticking out as they processed around town. Some say the sticks and ax represented tools for flogging and beheading, respectively; a more sanguine explanation makes the bundled sticks the unified Roman people and the ax their collective power. Either way, the fasces represents the absolute power of the state. As I’m sure you’ve already surmised, this emblem gave rise to the terms fascist and fascism.
So, are fascia and fasces related? They’re not the same word, but they are siblings, both describing bundled things. My foot’s fascia, and yours, are connected etymologically to the fearsome symbol of Roman imperial power. See the title of this post.