Where does the word “hectic” come from and What does hectic mean?

The Greek physician Galen, who lived in the second century B.C., discovered that the cheeks of certain of his patients were continuously flushed as if by fever.

He described that condition as hektikos, which meant “habitual.”

Later the condition was recognized as a disease, and the physicians of the fifteenth century, using Galen’s term, called it hectic fever, though we now call it consumption from the fact that the disease gradually consumes the tissues of the body.

The broader term, tuberculosis, is more accurate. Doctors use the term hectic fever nowadays, however, for a type of fever which, though usually associated with tubercular disease, also accompanies some forms of septic poisoning.

An accompanying symptom of this fever is a nervous excitability in the patient, the appearance of which is heightened by flushed cheeks and abnormally bright eyes. In consequence of this air of excitability, the ancient medical term, in recent years, has acquired a meaning that would astonish poor old Galen.

He would find it difficult to believe that a term meaning “habitual” could have had its meaning so distorted as to be used in place of “wild, reckless, excitable.”

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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