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

  • n. Any of various chiefly aquatic bloodsucking or carnivorous annelid worms of the class Hirudinea, of which one species (Hirudo medicinalis) was formerly used by physicians to bleed patients and is now sometimes used as a temporary aid to circulation during surgical reattachment of a body part.
  • n. One that preys on or clings to another; a parasite.
  • n. Archaic A physician.
  • transitive v. To bleed with leeches.
  • transitive v. To drain the essence or exhaust the resources of.
  • intransitive v. To attach oneself to another in the manner of a leech.
  • n. Nautical Either vertical edge of a square sail.
  • n. Nautical The after edge of a fore-and-aft sail.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

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

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. See 2d leach.
  • n. The border or edge at the side of a sail.
  • n. A physician or surgeon; a professor of the art of healing.
  • n. 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.
  • n. A glass tube of peculiar construction, adapted for drawing blood from a scarified part by means of a vacuum.
  • transitive v. See leach, v. t.
  • transitive v. To treat as a surgeon; to doctor.
  • transitive v. To bleed by the use of leeches.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

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

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

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


Middle English leche, physician, leech, from Old English lǣce.
Middle English leche, probably from Middle Low German līk, leech line.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From Middle English leche ("blood-sucking worm"), from Old English lǣċe ("blood-sucking worm"), akin to Middle Dutch lāke ("blood-sucking worm") (Dutch laak). (Wiktionary)
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"). (Wiktionary)
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")). (Wiktionary)



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  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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