Siddhartha Mukherjee has done something that should not have been possible: he has managed, at once, to write an authoritative history of cancer for the general reader, while always keeping the experiences of cancer patients in his heart and in his narrative. At once learned and skeptical, unsentimental and humane, The Emperor of all Maladies is that rarest of things - a noble book.
I had not previously been aware of the importance of the German doctor and biologist Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902), who made several important discoveries to do with leukemia. Coming across his name in the book, I naturally wondered how to pronounce it. Its spelling combines three different uncertainties in German spelling-to-pronunciation rules: the initial letter v (f or v?), ch (ç or x?) and the final w (f or silent?).
Mangold’s Duden Aussprachewörterbuch gives
Virchow ˈfɪrço, auch ˈvɪ…This is confirmed by the Deutsches Aussprachewörterbuch.
fˈɪʁçoː od. vˈɪʁ…Merriam-Webster 11 offers the anglicization
ˈfir-(ˌ)kō, ˈvir-which translates into BrE as ˈfɪəkəʊ or ˈvɪəkəʊ. So be it.
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The rest of this post is a rant about the failure of authors and editors to carry out appropriate fact-checking before publication.
My quibble is this. As I came to the book I knew very little about the aetiology and therapeutics of cancer. I was eager to hear what Mukherjee had to tell me about surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and the biology of carcinoma cells. Naturally, I was prepared to accept as authentic what he wrote on these topics. But every now and again, as he introduced some new technical term, he would tell us the purported etymology of the word in question. Now language is something I do know a bit about, and here almost everything Mukherjee says is inaccurate. This reduces my faith in him as an authority on other matters.
Marie Curie called the new element radium, from the Greek word for “light”.No, radium is not Greek, and it does not mean ‘light’. The word was coined from rad- (in French radioactif) plus the suffix -ium (used to form the names of metallic elements). Rad- is from the Latin word radius, which means ‘rod, spoke, ray’. The Greek for ‘light’ is φῶς phōs (contracted from φάος phaos), stem φωτ- phōt-, which gives us photography, photon etc.
…vinca, the Latin word for “bind”.No, the Latin word for ‘bind’ (verb) is vincio, vincire, vinxi, vinctum. The related noun is vinculum ‘a bond, fetter’. The form vinca is late Latin and botanical Latin for a genus of plants known in English as ‘periwinkle’. The drug vincristine was derived from a plant formerly included in the genus Vinca (but now placed in Catharanthus).
adjuvant, from the Latin phrase “to help”No, the Latin origin of this word is adjuvans, with stem adjuvant-. It is not a phrase, but a single word. It means ‘helping’ and is the present participle active of the verb adjuvo. ‘To help’ is adjuvare, its infinitive.
[a propos Ramazzini’s De Morbis Artificum Diatriba] …one such morbis…The intended word is morbus, the nominative singular of the word meaning ‘disease’. The form morbis is the Latin ablative plural, used after the preposition de.
mitosis — Greek for “thread” —The Greek for ‘thread’ is mitos (μίτος). Mitosis is a modern Latin coinage based on this root.
Not about language, but a matter of general knowledge, is
…the isolated hamlet of Brno, Austria…Brno, where Mendel carried out his pea experiments at St Thomas’s Abbey, is no “isolated hamlet”, but a large city, the capital of Moravia.
I’m not saying that Mukherjee ought to have known all these things. I’m saying that someone — either the author or the publisher’s editor — ought to have checked the facts, which are readily available.