ægophony: a characteristic “bleating” quality heard in conducted voice-sounds when listening to the chest over an area of consolidated lung

When I was a medical student, we spent a lot of time listening to patient’s chests with our stethoscopes. Two things we were told to listen for were bleating ægophony and whispering pectoriloquy, which always sounded to me like the names of two Mafia mobsters—you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Tony “Bleating” Igofonni or Franky “Whispering” Pectoriloque.

Bleating ægophony is largely tautological—it says the same thing twice, because ægophony means “goat-sound”, from the Greek aix, “goat”.  Goats don’t really do much vocalizing apart from bleating, so I’m glad to see that the clinical sign is now more often called just plain ægophony (or egophony in the United States, where they have an unreasoning antipathy to the æ diphthong).

What’s happening with ægophony is that lung tissue which contains no air conducts sound differently from normal lung tissue. In particular, it tends to trim out lower frequency sounds. So the conducted sound of the patient’s voice takes on a high-pitched, bleating quality when the clinician listens over the abnormal lung.

The word ægis is related to Greek aix, “goat”. In mythology, it was a shield or breastplate used by a god—Zeus or Athena. The name probably comes from the fact that such objects were often fashioned from goatskin. The phrase under the ægis of used to mean “under the protection of [some powerful entity]”, but has slowly evolved until it is more often used to mean just “under the control of”.

Ear from Gray's Anatomy (1918)

In Greek, a male goat was tragos. It is the origin, albeit obscurely, of our word tragedy. The serious style of Greek play that Aristotle defined as evoking “pity and horror” was referred to as tragœdia, “goat-song”, but no-one seems to be entirely sure why. The Roman poet Horace claimed that the origin of the word was a custom that the winner of choral competitions would receive a goat as a prize. While that certainly seems tragic if true, it doesn’t really seem to link perfectly to the tradition of Greek tragedy. Tragos has also given us tragus, the little flap of cartilage at the entrance to the ear, which in older men will often sprout a tuft of hair like the beard on a billy-goat—another tragedy, of sorts.

To the Greeks, a female goat was chimaira, which for some reason was also the name given to a fabulous monster in Greek mythology, with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a snake. In English, as chimera, it’s a word for any combination of mismatched parts, including organisms that contain cells from several different sources.

In Latin, a male goat was caper, and a female goat, capra. A capriole or cabriole is a goat-like leap, as is a caper. The word cabriole in turn led to cabriolet, a type of two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage that tended to bounce along because it was light and had good suspension. These were often available for hire, and the word was soon contracted to cab, which is still applied to taxis today. If you experience a mental goat-like leap, you have a caprice; you are capricious. And a piece of music that bounds around in a lively fashion is a capriccio.

Something that pertains to goats is caprine, and something goat-shaped is capriform. There’s also a word caprigenous, “produced by a goat”, but it has relatively few applications beyond wool and cheese. Something goat-footed (like the god Pan) is a capriped, and something goat-horned is a capricorn—hence the Latin name of the zodiacal constellation, the He-Goat.

And while we’re talking about stars, the Romans had a diminutive, capella, applied to she-goats and kids, which is the name of the brightest star in the constellation Auriga. The star Capella represents the mythical she-goat that nursed the infant Zeus, whom he rewarded by translating her into the heavens.

Another Latin word for a male goat was hircus, and that gives us words for various goatish unpleasantness: something hircose or hircinous smells like a goat; hircine may indicate both smelliness and lustfulness. (And we’ve all had someone like that in our lives, haven’t we?)

And then there’s hirquitalliency, apparently from the Latin hirquitallire, “to resemble a billy-goat”. The Latin word was reputedly applied to boys passing through puberty, in reference to their breaking voices and lustfulness. Unfortunately, in the only use of hirquitalliency recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary, it is applied to a woman, and its meaning is a little unclear. It was coined in 1652 by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty: translator of Rabelais, inventor of a universal language, inveterate word-coiner, and impenetrable prose stylist. I think he used the word to imply a certain amount of lustful feminine vocalizing, but I’ll let you judge for yourself. Here’s the relevant passage from his Ekskybalauron:

Thus for a while their eloquence was mute, and all they spoke was but with the eye and hand, yet so persuasively, by vertue of the intermutual unlimitedness of their visotactil sensation, that each part and portion of the persons of either was obvious to the sight and touch of the persons of both; the visuriency of either, by ushering the tacturiency of both, made the attrectation of both consequent to the inspection of either. Here it was that passion was active, and action passive, they both being overcome by other, and each the conquerour. To speak of her hirquitalliency at the elevation of the pole of his microcosme, or of his luxuriousness to erect a gnomon on her horizontal dyal, will perhaps be held by some to be expressions full of obscoeness, and offensive to the purity of chaste ears; yet seeing she was to be his wife, and that she could not be such without consummation of marriage, which signifieth the same thing in effect, it may be thought, as definitiones logicae verificantur in rebus, if the exerced act be lawful, that the diction which suppones it, can be of no greater transgression, unless you would call it a solaecisme, or that vice in grammar which imports the copulating of the masculine with the feminine gender.


Note: In case you’re wondering, pectoriloquy is “chest speaking”—being able to hear conducted speech sounds in the patient’s chest with a stethoscope. Whispering (or whispered) pectoriloquy is being able to hear whispered speech in the same way, which is not normally possible, but which (like ægophony) occurs over areas of lung that contain no air.

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