Blood Words

By Charles Bardes

What does blood mean? Or, to paraphrase the poet John Ciardi, how does blood mean?

Words for blood in modern European languages belong to several distinct groups. Four are most prominent, of which the English representatives are blood, sanguine, heme, and cruor. Each carries a different shade of meaning that stems from its linguistic history. These trace back, as often as possible, to Indo-European,1 the reconstructed ancestor of most of the languages stretching from western Europe to the Indian subcontinent.

English shares blood with its Germanic cousins; thus German Blut, Swedish blot, Dutch bloed, and so on. The ultimate Indo-European root may be *bhel-, whose core sense is to swell, to blossom, or to thrive. Blood in this sense is the life-giving force, that which allows creatures to flourish—and indeed flourish stems from the same root. Another cognate is bless, originally to consecrate with blood.

The Romance languages use a different term, derived from the Latin word for blood, sanguis: thus French sang, Spanish sangre, Italian sangue. Scholars debate the pre-Latin source, but some hypothesize a relation to an Old Latin word assir, whose descendant was assirātum, a drink composed of wine and blood. The sanguine family evokes the ritualistic, sacred aspects of blood, with echoes of blood-covenant.

The classical Greek word for blood was haima (ἀιμα). The Indo-European root may be *sai- or *sei-, a thick liquid, also denoting wetness or dampness. This relates to words for honey and nectar, so that the word conveys a certain sweetness. But caution is warranted, for in such ancient sources as Homer and Aeschylus the word could mean bloodshed, even murder.

A technical and now obsolete word in English, cruor, was borrowed directly from Latin in the seventeenth century. This word for blood more specifically meant blood out of the body—spilled blood. The Indo-European root is *kreu-, raw flesh, and modern descendants include cruel, crude, and raw. This again is the violent aspect of blood— hemorrhage, carnage, gore.

Just as human anatomy embodies its evolutionary and embryonic past, so human language bears the traces of its histories. Blood is the life-giving force, also a consecration, sometimes pleasing, sometimes gruesome. And a further sense, shared by blood, sanguine and heme, is blood-relation, kinship, brotherhood. Hear Shakespeare’s Henry V at Agincourt: “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Hear the late Josh White, whose “Free and Equal Blues” lampoons Jim Crow laws requiring segregated blood transfusion: singing of blood, “the darn thing has no race.”

About the Author

Charles Bardes practices and teaches internal medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. His books, poems and essays have been widely published. He leads the Humanities section at TBP. Click here to learn more.