In the friendly title painting above, by Giovanni da Milano from mid-14 th century Florence , we are sure that Saint Anne, in giving birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary, did not have the use of synthetic oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a pituitary hormone in mammals with multiple body functions. Chiefly, oxytocin stimulates contraction of the smooth muscle of the uterus, thus facilitating childbirth. Distention of the cervix during birth triggers the release of oxytocin. Hence the name of this hormone contains the Greek word for childbirth, τόκος tokos, whose etymology and whose cognates in other languages we will examine in this short column. A synthetic oxytocin can be used to induce and accelerate labour and to reduce post-partum hemorrhage.
Upon stimulation of the nipples, oxytocin also helps induce lactatation by contracting the smooth muscles of the milk ducts. Oxytocin was immediately borrowed from the ancient Greek compound noun ὼκυτοκίνη ōkytokínē ‘quick birth’ ( ὼκύς okys ‘quick, swift, speedy’ + τόκος ‘childbirth’ ).
Sexual orgasm also raises the oxytocin levels, promoting a pleasant euphoria and the impulse to fall asleep.
The adjective oxytocic is also used as a noun in current medical literature as a general name for agents that terminate pregnancy, that is, abortifacients, showing up in lists like this: ecbolics, oxytocics and emmenagogues.
Fascinating new studies probe the inability to secrete oxytocin as involved in lack of empathy for others, hence such a anoxytocic lack might be partially causative in criminal behaviour and other sociopathic symptoms.
Etymology of Tokos & Indo-European Related Words
Tokos τόκος can refer in Greek to the act of childbirth and it can also mean offspring or child. Literally tokos means ‘something begotten,’ being a noun from the verb τίκτειν tiktein ‘to bring forth progeny, (of trees) to fruit, tiktein being a reduplicative form of tekein ‘to beget.’ The more common ancient Greek word for child, teknon, derived from this verb. The Greeks also used the verb to describe the making of interest from money, so that tiktein means ‘to accrue interest’ e.g. from a loan.
Word Relatives in Other Languages
Tokos is cognate with English thane/thegn, a servant, minister or disciple of Christ. English readers might remember the word in one of the titles of Shakespeare’s Macbeth when in Act One MacBeth and Banquo first encounter the Three Weird Sisters (witches) and the second hag greets him with “Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.” In that play, thane refers to a retainer who holds land on behalf of a Scottish king.
Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
Old English þegn meant ‘boy, servant, warrior.’ In Old Norse a thegn was a freeman. Its oldest root Germanic sense however was ‘boy,’ for thane is cognate with Greek teknos ‘boy’ and Sanskrit takman ‘child.’
Other English Words from Greek Tokos
These terms are, for the most part, from science, from medicine, particularly from obstetrics. Some are now rare.
TKD is used to measure uterine contractions. Tokodynamometer = tokos ‘childbirth’ + dynamis ‘power’ + metron ‘measuring device.’
Tocology is still found as a somewhat high-falutin’ synonym for midwifery, although it is a better synonym for obstetrics with its literal meaning of ‘the scientific study and practice of childbirth.’
The occasional psychology text carries the word tocophobia, abnormal dread in women of giving birth.
Tocography is the recording of uterine contractions.
Quite rare is mogitocia ‘difficult delivery of a baby’ < μόγις ‘with difficulty.’ The more usual obstetrical term today for abnormally difficult childbirth is dystocia or dystokia.
More common is the adjective ditokous meaning ‘giving birth to twins’ with the di- combing form meaning ‘two.’
There is a manganese mineral called neotocite named because it is a product of earlier rocks weathering and thus is more recently ‘born’ so-to-speak. Greek νεότοκος neotokos ‘newborn, recent’ < Greek νέος neos ‘new’ + τόκος tokos ‘child.’
Theotokos Image of Mary and Jesus, namely Maiestas Mariae (The Glory of Mary) with Angels, by Cimabue, circa 1285 CE, Church of the Holy Trinity, Florence
In Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology, and in the upper clouds of the Higher Anglicanism, one name for the Virgin Mary is Theotokos ‘the one who gave birth to God’ < Greek θεός theos ‘god’ + τόκος tokos ‘one who brings forth.’
Now, while we loll serenely upon this unaccustomed nimbus of religiosity, let us take pious leave and skim aloft on pristine wings, borne upon the zephyrs of an improbable salvation.
Copyright 2012 © William Gordon Casselman