“Panacea Helping the Sick,”1716, from The World is Deceived by False Doctors by Veronese physician J. Gazola. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Have you ever noticed how many words there are that mean “cure-all”? Panacea, nostrum, elixir, even the more obscure catholicon. Where did all these synonyms come from? Why were people of the past so stuck on the one medicine that, logically, could never exist? I decided to check the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary for some help understanding the history of the concept.
Cure-all: In the sense of “universal remedy,” this word wasn’t documented until 1870, but as a type of plant, it debuted in 1793.
Panacea: Used to indicate “a medicine reputed to cure all diseases,” this arose in 1548 (and, interestingly, was personified as the daughter of Ascelapius, whose other daughters included Hygieia). An earlier version, panace, dates to 1522.
Nostrum: This word has always had a negative connotation of a failed cure. The OED‘s 1602 example, its oldest, refers to “witless nostrums.” The figurative use, referring to a misguided cure for social problems, appears first in 1741.
Elixir: An ancient word (first documented use in English: 1386), this once referred both to a substance that could give eternal life and that could turn lead into gold. It didn’t evolve into the sense of “a sovereign remedy for disease” until 1632.
Catholicon: This term plays on the often-forgotten meaning of “catholic” as “all-embracing.” It was first used to indicate “a universal remedy or prophylactic” in 1611.
Close attention to the timeline of these words reveals an interesting pattern. While they all seem as if they should date back to a medieval alchemist in a crumbling tower, scribbling mysterious Latin formulae in an incunabulum, that’s really not the case at all. Elixir is the only particularly ancient word; two of the others cluster in the 1600s (as does the “sovereign remedy” sense of elixir). By that time, the Scientific Revolution was gripping gentleman scholars with a mania for empirical fact. It seems as if scorn for the past might actually have created a new vocabulary—a variety of words to express exactly what was wrong with “old” science, and, by implication, what was right about “new” science.