Cancer "crab" and cancer "lattice" look related, but it could be a coincidence. They are not very close in meaning, but one could perhaps imagine a crab's collection of legs to be somewhat similar to a lattice, or crab legs could have been used to make some kind of lattice—I have no idea. Could those two words possibly be related?


I've heard a theory that the "lattice" meaning is actually the original. According to this theory, cancer comes from Proto-Italic *kar-kr- by dissimilation. If this is true, then cancer and carcer would be doublets, and the original meaning of both would be something like "cage". Carcer then shifted to mean "entrapping cage" and thus "jail", while cancer first shifted to "claws" (which hold something) and thus to "crab" by metonymy.

I don't, unfortunately, currently have access to De Vaan or another reputable source, so I can't say how well-accepted this theory is. But the Ancient Greek karkínos "crab" might show a similar development from the original *kar-, which lends a bit of weight.

  • 1
    Very interesting! That sounds semantically more plausible.
    – Cerberus
    Jun 18 '18 at 17:56
  • @Cerberus I might also consider the symbolism of nets (a form of matrix) and their association with women. The cage aspect is on point, but there is also the mythology of the καρκίνος which involves Hera sending it to entangle Heracles when he is fighting the Hydra.
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 26 '18 at 20:38
  • @DukeZhou: Hmm interesting. A cursory search reveals only that the crab snapped at Hercules's foot, not exactly entangling him? I suppose restricting someone's movement by holding on to his foot constitutes impeding or limiting him, but it still seems somewhat far removed from a cage or lattice? // As to matrix, how is that related to nets (in classical or earlier Latin)? Or how are women connected with nets in general?
    – Cerberus
    Jun 26 '18 at 23:56
  • @Cerberus Nets are latices, and there are many early representations of goddesses with these designs on their abdomens. (Gimbutas wrote a book about it, and although the scholarship has been subsequently disputed, the artifacts themselves are not.) For instance, nets are associated with Cassandra re: Agamemnon's murder, and, in general, weaving was the domain of women. Athena/Arachne is another example (spider webs are lattices.) Matrix etymology doesn't relate to καρκίνος, but the root for matrix, which can be a lattice, is related to many modern words relating to mother ("matriarch", etc.)
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 27 '18 at 18:01
  • @DukeZhou: Ah, I see, some interesting references there with regard to depictions and weaving. I'm still not sure I get the matrix, though: surely that is a modern use of the word? Or did the Romans also use the word matrix to indicate some kind of lattice or net?
    – Cerberus
    Jun 27 '18 at 20:54

For reference, de Vaan writes:

The Latin word can only be connected with evidence outside Italic if we assume a dissimilation of earlier *karkros 'enclosure' (cf. carcer) to *kankros. Since the pincers of a crab form a circle, this may have been the cause of its denomination.

Not perhaps the very last word on the matter.


In Slavic languages (at least, East-Slavic), the word рак (/rak/) can mean either "crayfish" or "cancer". Also, we have the word краб (/krab/) but it only means the crustacean crabs. This is somehow related with cancer, i.e. краб related to рак as both can refer to a crustacean, but рак also can refer to "cancer".

This is kind of an interesting linguistic thing that bothered me from the childhood, I mean why рак can refer to both the strange (even scary) looking animal and the terrible, often fatal, disease.

Now I see that Draconis is right with regard to the Greek καρκίνος (/karkinos/) meaning "crab". And, by the way, the Zodiac Sign which is supposed to look like a crayfish is called Cancer.

Unfortunately I didn't quite get how the question raised in your head, because we speak different languages. To me, "cancer" and "crab" are kind of related, but I don't understand how "lattice" associates with both "cancer" and "crab". Can you explain once more please what "Cancer "crab" and cancer "lattice"" mean to you?

  • 2
    The Latin word cancer, -crī, m means both "crab" and "lattice". That's what inspired this question.
    – Draconis
    Jun 19 '18 at 0:57
  • The question has nothing to do with the disease. It is about two Latin words that look the same (or a word with two wildly different meanings). Do you happen to know whether the meanings "crab" and "lattice" of the Latin word cancer are related?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 19 '18 at 9:27
  • @JoonasIlmavirta No I didn't, till the moment Draconis mentioned it. I guess that's because East-Slavic languages were more influenced by the Greek language directly rather than Italic/German languages which adopted Greek through Latin. The words "crab" ("краб"), "crayfish" ("рак" as animal) and "cancer" ("рак" as decease) in East-Slavic are unrelated to "lattice" ("решётка") neither phonetically nor by the meaning. And maybe other East-Slavic native speakers will disagree, but I never associated lattice with all those words even unconsciously. Jun 19 '18 at 12:19
  • I have to add two things. First, there is the word карцер (/karcer/, Russian/Ukrainian), карцэр (/karcer/, Belarusian), karcer (Polish) for punishment cells in prisons. Second, it's said за решёткой (/za reshetkoy/, Russian), за кратамi (/za kratamy/, Belarusian), за гратами (/za hratamy/, Ukrainian), za kratkami (Polish) meaning "in prison", which literally can be translated as "behind bars" or "behind lattice". Here you can see that Belarusian, Ukrainian and Polish versions of "lattice" are actually similar to "crab", but not the Russian one. Jun 19 '18 at 22:47
  • So regarding my words about unconscious association between "crab" and "lattice" - I would narrow it down to Russian native speakers only. The border between Orthodox and Catholic worlds lay somewhere in these lands for centuries, with Catholic population (Poland, a half of Belarus and some part of Ukraine) more inclined to adopt Latin terms and Orthodox population (the rest of Belarus and Ukraine, Russia) -- to adopt Greek terms. Jun 19 '18 at 22:47

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