Not so long ago I was very grateful to receive a communication from an osteopath about my oft-repeated interpretation of the word “osteopathy”. I have always taken it to mean, in an etymological sense, “diseases of the bones”. I was relating the “path” bit to “pathology”, without having looked deeper at its meaning. This astute reader politely pointed out that the “path” in osteopathy can mean “feeling”, as in the words empathy and sympathy.
The “-path”comes from the Greek word pathos, and means “suffering”, “experience”, “disease”, “feeling” or “emotion”, depending where you look and how it is used. So yes in its medical sense, in words like pathology, it is used to mean disease. Pathology is the ‘science of disease.’ However in Ancient Greece pathologia meant ‘study of the passions’, evoking its “feeling” meaning. It is probably best left as “pathos”, which we all kind of know but can’t narrow down to a more precise definition, because it is rich and soulful and is panoramic in its meaning.
Now this makes much more sense to me, as osteopaths in practice are all about the feeling as well as the physical. And we connect with the pathos through the bones. I have started to think, for the first time, that Still did not, after all, make a colossal error in his naming of the profession. It is some time since I read his autobiography, and John Lewis’s worthy tome still mocks me from the bookshelf with its pristine pages and un-smeared dust jacket, so I am sorry I can’t remember how Still himself explained the rationale behind his choice of word, but I think the one we have ended up with is surprisingly accurate and poetically descriptive, not to say pleasingly musical in its phonetics. It represents the derivation from pathos in its broadest sense.
As for the “osteo” bit, even that might not be so misleading. Yes, it has led our profession to be perceived merely as modern-day bonesetters, but even though I have wearily explained, time after time, that “it’s not just about bones”, the bones somehow are our starting point, and our way into the physical body. They’re the easiest thing to start feeling. There aren’t too many, and they’re quite solid. And the thrill at the start of an osteopathy degree of actually handling real bones, running your hand along their smooth contours, seeing how they fit together, finding their landmarks under your skin, still stays with me as one of the most exciting learning adventures of my life.