I was putting together some thoughts about lymphangioma the other day, and I got to wondering where the name came from. I love it when there’s a Latin or Greek word root that makes sense…and I found more than I hoped for when I looked into lymphangioma.

First, let’s talk about lymphangioma. Lymphangiomas are benign neoplasms composed of – you guessed it – lymphatic vessels. There are two types:

Simple lymphangioma

  • Also called capillary lymphangioma.
  • Smallish (1-2 cm), non-pigmented, raised lesions in the head, neck, or axilla.
  • Composed of a bunch of tiny vessels that look like capillaries.
  • You can only tell that the vessels are lymphatics by the absence of red blood cells. If there are red blood cells in there, then you’re dealing with a hemangioma.

Cavernous hemangioma

  • Also called cystic hygroma (ugh).
  • Large (sometimes enormous, like 15 cm!) lesions in the neck or axilla (or rarely, retroperitoneum) in children.
  • Common in Turner syndrome.
  • Composed of a bunch of big lymphatic vessels in a connective tissue background, with lymphoid aggregates here and there.
  • Hard to resect, because there’s no capsule.

Now, the beautiful part. We’ve talked before about how the angio- word root means vessel (often it means blood vessel, but in this case, it means a lymphatic vessel. But what does lymph- mean?

Lymph, of course, is the clear fluid that flows through lymph nodes and tissues, and eventually returns to the blood. So how did it get that name? It turns out that lymph is a combination of a couple different words: the Latin lumpæ, meaning water, and the Greek nymphe, meaning spring goddess. The resulting word – lympha in Latin, lymphe in French – means clear water or a goddess of water.

I just love this so much. First of all, lumpæ sounds gross, and I wouldn’t want to have to deal with that word all the time. Second, we now have an accurate description (lymph does look like clear water) overlaid with a lovely, delicate image (spring water goddess). I mean, what more could you want?

Now every time I hear lymphatic, or lymphocyte, my brain will conjure up something like this:

This is Persephone, the Greek goddess, bringing spring to the frozen tundra.