from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • noun Any of various chiefly aquatic carnivorous or bloodsucking annelid worms of the class (or subclass) Hirudinea, of which one species (Hirudo medicinalis) was formerly widely used by physicians for therapeutic bloodletting.
  • noun One that preys on or clings to another; a parasite.
  • noun Archaic A physician.
  • intransitive verb To bleed with leeches.
  • intransitive verb To drain the essence or exhaust the resources of.
  • intransitive verb To attach oneself to another in the manner of a leech.
  • noun Either vertical edge of a square sail.
  • noun The after edge of a fore-and-aft sail.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • To apply leeches to, for the purpose of bleeding.
  • noun An aquatic, more or less parasitic, and blood-sucking worm; a suctorial or discophorous annelid of the order Hirudinea.
  • noun Figuratively, one who, as it were, sucks the blood or steals the substance of his victim, or persistently holds on for sordid gain.
  • noun Nautical, the perpendicular or sloping edge of a sail.
  • To treat with medicaments; heal; doctor.
  • noun A physician; a medical practitioner; a professor of the art of healing.
  • noun See leach.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

  • transitive verb See leach, v. t.
  • noun (Naut.) The border or edge at the side of a sail.
  • noun a line attached to the leech ropes of sails, passing up through blocks on the yards, to haul the leeches by.
  • noun that part of the boltrope to which the side of a sail is sewed.
  • noun Archaic A physician or surgeon; a professor of the art of healing.
  • noun (Zoöl.) Any one of numerous genera and species of annulose worms, belonging to the order Hirudinea, or Bdelloidea, esp. those species used in medicine, as Hirudo medicinalis of Europe, and allied species.
  • noun (Surg.) A glass tube of peculiar construction, adapted for drawing blood from a scarified part by means of a vacuum.
  • noun a less powerful European leech (Hæmopis vorax), commonly attacking the membrane that lines the inside of the mouth and nostrils of animals that drink at pools where it lives.
  • noun See 2d leach.
  • transitive verb Archaic To treat as a surgeon; to doctor.
  • transitive verb To bleed by the use of leeches.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • noun An aquatic blood-sucking annelid of class Hirudinea, especially Hirudo medicinalis.
  • noun A person who derives profit from others, in a parasitic fashion.
  • verb transitive To apply a leech medicinally, so that it sucks blood from the patient.
  • verb transitive To drain (resources) without giving back.
  • noun archaic A physician.
  • noun paganism A healer.
  • noun nautical The vertical edge of a square sail.
  • noun nautical The aft edge of a triangular sail.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • noun a follower who hangs around a host (without benefit to the host) in hope of gain or advantage
  • noun carnivorous or bloodsucking aquatic or terrestrial worms typically having a sucker at each end
  • verb draw blood


from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[Middle English leche, physician, leech, from Old English lǣce; see leg- in Indo-European roots.]

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[Middle English leche, probably from Middle Low German līk, leech line; see leig- in Indo-European roots.]

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From Middle English leche ("blood-sucking worm"), from Old English lǣċe ("blood-sucking worm"), akin to Middle Dutch lāke ("blood-sucking worm") (Dutch laak).

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From Middle English leche ("physician"), from Old English lǣċe ("doctor, physician"), from Proto-Germanic *lēkijaz (“doctor”), from Proto-Indo-European *lēg(')- (“doctor”). Cognate with Old Frisian lētza ("physician"), Old Saxon lāki ("physician"), Old High German lāhhi ("doctor, healer"), Danish læge ("doctor, surgeon"), Gothic 𐌻𐌴𐌺𐌴𐌹𐍃 (lekeis, "physician"), Old Irish líaig ("exorcist, doctor").

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

Middle English lek, leche, lyche, from Old Norse lík ("leechline"), from Proto-Germanic *līkan (compare West Frisian lyk ("band"), Dutch lijk ("boltrope"), Middle High German geleich ("joint, limb")), from Proto-Indo-European *leiĝ- ‘to bind’ (compare Latin ligō ("tie, bind"), Ukrainian налигати (nalýhaty, "to bridle, fetter"), Albanian lidh ("to bind")).


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  • Surprisingly perhaps, the "doctor" meaning is the original. It's a widespread Germanic root that's made it as far as Finnish (lääkäri) and Polish (lekarz). By contrast, English only shares the "blood-sucking worm" meaning with Middle Dutch. So either the word for "doctor" was applied to the worm in the pre-Old English period, or they were two separate words that have drifted together. (Anomalous vowels in some of the forms suggest that the "worm" word was originally different.)

    April 9, 2009

  • One of the leading Slovene pharmaceutical companies is called "Lek", an old Slovene word that means "medicine", and the Slovene word for pharmacy is lekarna. In Russian, лекарь (lekar') is an old word for "doctor", лекар�?тво (lekarstvo) means "medicine", and there is even a verb лечить (le�?it') (showing the usual k > �? palatalization), which means "to treat a disease with medicine". Given the general distribution of this root throughout the Slavic languages (and Slovene and Russian are about as far apart as Slavic languages get in terms of non-Slavic influences), I had always assumed this was a Slavic root. Marko Snoj, in his Slovene Etymological Dictionary, confirms that the word *lek ("medicine") is indeed a Proto-Slavic word, but then writes that it is "usually considered a borrowing from Germanic (compare the Gothic lekeis 'doctor', lekkinon 'to treat with medicine' …), which was itself borrowed from Celtic (compare the Middle Irish líaig 'doctor')."

    By the way, in English, you can still come across the word "leech" in the sense of "doctor" in older texts (I think even as late as the 19th century).

    April 9, 2009

  • If both Germanic and Slavonic inherited it from common Indo-European, Germanic k would correspond to a voiced sound in Slavonic, *g or perhaps *z; as Slavonic has k too it's presumably a borrowing from Germanic. Starostin lists the Germanic and Celtic forms but doesn't mention the Slavonic.

    (I mentioned Polish specifically before only because I happened to know that without looking it up.)

    April 9, 2009

  • I agree that it's probably borrowed from a Germanic language; there are quite a few Proto-Slavic words that were borrowed from Germanic (I assume Gothic), e.g. *kъnęgъ, which produced the noble titles кн�?зь (knjaz') in Russian ("prince") and knez in Slovene ("prince" or "duke"), as well as the Czech kněz ("priest"). The Germanic source, *kuningaz, yielded of course the German König and the English king.

    April 9, 2009