The medieval apothecary could not be trusted to prepare prescriptions correctly, remember? (We wrote about this here a couple of weeks ago.) While he might substitute an equally effective medication, he might instead slip a cheaper, even poisonous herb into your vial. That was an ancient and medieval quid pro quo, meaning ”this for that.”
The apothecary’s root word was the Latin apotheca, borrowed from Greek, meaning a storehouse or repository. An apothecary eventually described a warehouse storing herbs and medication, and the person in charge was also known as an apothecary. It was as though the person running a pharmacy was also called a pharmacy.
Pharmacy–another sketchy term. Nowadays, though we may distrust Big Pharma, we mostly trust our pharmacists. However, the Greek root word pharmakeia could mean “a poisonous herb or potion,” as well as something healing.
Of course, in olden times, even if the prescription was correct, it may not have actually been healing. One dubious purpose of early medications was to rid the body of excess humors, that is, the four major fluids in the body—phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood. These humors corresponded to the four elements—water, earth, fire, and air. Too much of any humor caused illness, and the predominance of a particular humor helped create one’s personality. Audiences at the Globe Theater recognized that Shakespeare’s Falstaff, for example, demonstrated an abundance of phlegm.
Are you already wondering about possible connections to some English words in modern usage? Tell us in the comments. If so, you can see that we’re in over our heads for this Wednesday. We’ll wait until the first Wednesday of next year to dive deeper into the four humors and their modern derivatives.