Today Scientific American shared this bit from its 50-year archive, by the mathematician Sherman K. Stein, recounting an interview with the composer George Perle on a theory of rhythm developed in India over 1000 years ago:

While reading about this theory,’ he said, ‘I learned my one and only Sanskrit word: yamátárájabhánasalagám.’ I asked him what it meant. ‘It’s just a nonsense word invented as a memory aid for Indian drummers…. As you pronounce the word you sweep out all possible triplets of short and long beats.’

Sounds like onomatopoeia, or something similar in ancient Indian music parlance. But I’m no drummer, and I don’t know Sanskrit.

It’s got me wondering about the thousands of ancient, hard-to-spell-or-say terms, not rooted in Greek or Latin, for complex medical conditions doctors use today, about which we have so little knowledge.

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