Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Cataract - The Portcullis of the Eye

A man with a cataract, and a blurred photograph of the same man
A depiction of how a cataract may affect someone's sight
(photo by Clare Louise Thomas, courtesy of ORBIS)


Noun & verb. Late Middle English.
[Latin cataracta waterfall, floodgate, portcullis, from Greek kataractes, -rrh- down-rushing (water etc.),
probably from katarassein formed as CATA- + arassein strike, smash. In sense 2 apparent figurative use of sense 'portcullis'.]

A1(a) noun. obsolete. In plural. Floodgates, specifically of heaven (Genesis 7:11, 8:2). LME-L17

A1(b) noun. transferred. A waterspout. M16-M17

A2 noun. MEDICINE. (A condition of) partial or complete opacity of the lens of the eye. LME

A3 noun. A waterfall, specifically a large and sheer one; a torrent. L16

A4 noun. obsolete. A portcullis; the grating of a window. rare. M17-M19

B1 verb trans. Pour in a torrent. rare. L18

B2 verb intrans. Fall in or like a cataract. M19

cataractal adj. of the nature of a cataract. L19
cataractic obs. adj. (rare) cataractal. L17-E19
cataractous adj. of or affected by cataract of the eye. E19

Cataract arrived in English via the Greek for 'waterfall', was adopted into Latin to also mean 'portcullis', which was then figuratively applied to the ubiquitous eye condition; few etymologies in the English language convey with such poignancy the human story behind a word. For the approximately 20 million people that suffer from cataracts worldwide, their sight can become just like straining to look through a static sheet of water, or oil smeared on a pane of glass. Causing 51% of the world's blindness and disproportionately hitting developing countries due to limited access to eye care, cataracts become like a portcullis in not only being a physical barrier to good sight, but a social barrier that limits opportunities in work, education and mobility.

Do please leave any comments in the box below.


  1. My grandmother - maternal grandmother - had it in both her eyes and she did a surgery back on the time it was tough on you... I say on the time because the other day a colleague went through the procedure to remove in one eye and returned that afternoon to the office to file something. Times change!
    But I always wondered if the eyes' disease was named after the waterfall... I've never been behind a cataract - visiting is not good for me; I'll become depressed of how many things I haven't done YET ;) :kidding: - but I imagine you see all that stands beyond the wall of water in the same way people with cataracts describe their vision.
    Now, thanks to you, I know it is so... I wonder why humans don't research more on the things they wonder?! It must be so we can learn with those who do, like you. Thank you!

    1. Hi Teresa. Yes, it seems if you're fortunate enough to live in a place where it's available (and affordable), cataract treatment is quite effective these days. It doesn't seem completely clear among etymologists whether the word for the eye condition came from the sense of 'waterfall' or 'portcullis' (the OED seems to put more emphasis on the portcullis theory), while it's clear that the idea of a portcullis - a sheetlike vertical barrier that comes crashing down - did come from the idea of a waterfall. Whichever it ultimately is, or if it's a combination of both, its imagery is most fitting for the condition.

      And you're very welcome, of course, Teresa - it's great to have you reading and commenting here, so thank you : o )