Words for 'cancer' in other (non Indo-European) languages

A fair number of IE languages use som variation of the Greek “karkinos” (or however it’s spelled), or other words for “crab” as in German “Krebs” or Russian “rak.”

What are the words for “cancer” in other unrelated languages, though, and what do they mean? (Although, I can assume that some non-IE languages might use some form of “karkinos” or “crab” by assimilation).

Cancer in Hungarian is the same word as crab.


In Modern Hebrew it’s sartan, which is the same as the word for crab. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda probably based it on European languages, assuming he invented it.

It’s “syöpä” in Finnish. Probably related to the word for eating, which is “syödä”.

The Japanese term for cancer is “癌” ( がん; gan ). The kanji character is a compound ideograph meaning “sickness” and “large rock”.

In Japanese, crab is “蟹” ( かに; kani ). The kanji is an updated compound ideograph meaning “insect” and “sections”.

Basque has a curious situation, in that the differences between “official Basque” and “what people with Basque as their ancestral tongue speak” can be quite large. The majority of the differences are in vocabulary, although some of the “old dialects” use slightly different declinations as well.

My Basque-speaking coworkers use “cancer” (same word as in French and Spanish, although with Basque phonetics and declinations), but checking the official dictionary gives:

1 (Med.) minbizi, bizi, bizien

2 (Astron.) Cancer
Backchecking the medical words produced:

1 cancer
2 ulcer

bizi - fast, bright, spry
bizi izan, izaten - live, survive
bizitu, bizi(tu), bizitzen - to become livelier, brighter

So, if you’re trying to pass your Official Basque Language Exam you should use bizien, which derives from a word meaning “fast,” but if you’re talking to someone it would most likely be cancer.

Yup, “syöpä” is an archaic form of the present participle form “syövä”, “[the] eating [one]”, indicating the way cancer “eats up” a human.

Ahh, thanks. I figured it was related to how cancer “consumes” you.

In Chinese it’s called 癌症 and, as pointed out in the quote, the first character (the same in Japanese and Chinese) has connotations of “mouth” and “mountain.” There are three 口 (mouth) characters written above 山 (mountain), most likely referencing the consumptive nature of the disease (mouths that are strong enough to eat a mountain…and tissue). The second character just means “disease.” I recall (from my family’s experience with Cancer) that Cancer is called “Cancer” because cancerous cells look like a crab (the mythological crab that tormented Hercules) when under a microscope, or something.

There is a fragment in Spanish unknown-author novel El Lazarillo de Tormes (oldest known edition 1554) where the first-person protagonist, a blind man’s guide boy, describes a tavern wench who, paraphrased from memory, “had a lump on her breast, and this lump had legs like a crab, and my master told me that because it had legs she would someday die of having it, and that because of their shape these killer lumps are called cancer, which is crab in Latin.” I remember the fragment because the year we had to read the book complete was also the same year I discovered that over 80% of my male paternal ancestors whose cause of death is known list it as cancer at 65; the combination caused a strong impression.

Evidently not a medical treatise, but it’s also a lot older than the concept of cells.

The Russian word for cancer is transliterated as “Rak” and rhymes with ‘clock’.

It is also the same word used for crab.

Thanks for that reference. I’m sure there probably was some “Cancer/crab” reference before the advent of modern medicine.

Either way, it seems like most cultures and languages make the “cancer/crab” confluence.

  1. This example is already mentioned in the OP;
  2. Russian is not a non Indo-European language;
  3. it hardly rhymes with clock.