Once upon a time…

March 18, 2018

I have recently finished reading Marina Warner’s Once Upon A Time A Short History of Fairy Tale. I wasn’t as bowled over as many critics, but it did set me thinking about what is a fascinating topic. Warner examines what fairy tales are, where they come from and what they mean. They provide a window into attitudes to morality, sexuality, and society. Fairy tales belong to the larger genre of folklore that also encompasses folktales, legends and myths. These stories of evil stepmothers, wicked queens, dark curses, frightening ogres, little mermaids, fairy godmothers, beautiful princesses and Prince Charmings have enchanted readers and audiences, both adults and children, for centuries.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary dates the expression “fairy tale” back to 1635, it

was the French writer Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy who popularised the term with her “Les Contes des Fées” in 1697. There is a controversy among folklorists about whether to define a “fairy” as distinct from a “folk” tale. Nevertheless, they do agree that the presence of fairies is not required, but they do usually contain some type of magical element. Curiously, the opening words “Once upon a time” are actually older, dating back to  at least the 14th century.

Only in the mid-19th century did fairy tales become associated with children. The original versions, however, could be rather gruesome. In the first Grimm Brothers’ version, Little Red Riding Hood is only able to escape when a woodcutter frees her and her grandma by slitting open the wolf’s belly. And in their 1812 version of Snow White it is her jealous mother (not her stepmother) who wants to kill her. She is forced to attend Snow White’s wedding wearing red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she drops dead. In one telling of Goldilocks And The Three Bears the golden-haired girl ends up impaled on the steeple of St Paul’s Cathedral. Some early versions of Cinderella have one of the Ugly Sisters hacking her toes off to make the glass slipper fit her foot. In Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 story, Pinocchio falls asleep in front of the fire and his feet burn off. He had previously killed the cricket with a wooden mallet. After being turned into a donkey, he is tied to a rock and thrown over a cliff.  This is just a small sample of the gratuitous violence in these stories.

What most intrigues me is the way academics have interpreted them. I am most interested in the psychoanalytical interpretation. I am a bit of a sceptic when it comes to psychoanalysis. Bruno Bettelheim was considered one of the great child psychologists of the twentieth century. The Viennese-born professor had an international reputation in such fields as autism, child psychiatry, and Freudian analysis. Bettelheim also had a cameo role as himself in Woody Allen’s Zelig. Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales was a study of fairy tales and their role in understanding childhood development. He argued that the child intuitively comprehended that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue. As a good Freudian, Bettelheim argues that fairy tales allow children to tackle problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflict, and sibling rivalries. Warner provides a couple of his interpretations:

All through ‘Little Red Cap’, in the title as in the girl’s name, the emphasis is on the colour red, which she openly wears. Red is the colour symbolizing violent emotions, very much including sexual ones. The red velvet cap given by Grandmother to Little Red Cap thus can be viewed as a symbol of a premature transfer of sexual attractiveness, which is further accentuated by the grandmother’s being old and sick, too weak even to open a door … Little Red Cap’s danger is her budding sexuality, for which she is not yet emotionally mature enough.

However Cinderella may have felt about dwelling among the ashes, she knew that a person who lives thus appears to others as being dirty and uncouth. There are females who feel this way about their sexuality, and others who fear that males feel this way about it. That is why Cinderella made sure that the prince saw her in this state also before he chose her. By handing her the slipper to put her foot into, the prince symbolically expresses that he accepts her the way she is, dirty and degraded

Interestingly, after Bettelheim passed away, his academic credentials were found to have been falsified; he had only taken three introductory classes in psychology. He also plagiarised material for The Uses of Enchantment. But what was most serious was the abusive treatment of students at the Orthogenic School for Disturbed Children at the University of Chicago, where he was the director of from 1944 to 1973.

Fairy tales stories have also proved ripe for literary reinterpretation. I remember reading James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories more than 20 years. It still makes me laugh:

There once was a young person named Red Riding Hood who lived with her mother on the edge of a large wood.  One day her mother asked her to take a basket of fresh fruit and mineral water to her grandmother’s house — not because this was womyn’s work, mind you, but because the deed was generous and helped engender a feeling of community.  Furthermore, her grandmother was not sick, but rather was in full physical and mental health and was fully capable of taking care of herself as a mature adult.

So Red Riding Hood set off with her basket of food through the woods.  Many people she knew believed that the forest was a foreboding and dangerous place and never set foot in it.  Red Riding Hood, however, was confident . . .

On her way to Grandma’s house, Red Riding Hood was accosted by a Wolf, who asked her what was in her basket.  She replied, “Some healthful snacks for my grandmother, who is certainly capable of taking care of herself as a mature adult.”

The Wolf said, “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone.”

Red Riding Hood said, “I find your sexist remark offensive in the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, entirely valid worldview.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.”

Another of my favourites has to be The Guardian’s Cannes Lion Award-Winning “Three Little Pigs advert” from 2012:

And in her short story, The Company of Wolves, Angela Carter explored the sexual awakening of young women. Her Little Red Riding Hood character has become into a tale of female empowerment. She willingly takes the wolf to bed.

As well as Carter authors such as Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Roald Dahl and Gregory Maguire have all been inspired by fairy tales. But they are all surely surpassed by Amelia Hamilton:

…The wolf leaned in, jaws open wide, then stopped suddenly. Those big ears heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun’s safety being clicked off. Those big eyes looked down and saw that grandma had a scattergun aimed right at him. He realized that Grandmother hadn’t been backing away from him; she had been moving towards her shotgun to protect herself and her home. 

 “I don’t think I’ll be eaten today,” said Grandma, “and you won’t be eating anyone again.” Grandma kept her gun trained on the wolf, who was too scared to move. Before long, he heard a familiar voice call “Grandmother, I’m here!” Red peeked her head in the door. The wolf couldn’t believe his luck—he had come across two capable ladies in the same day, and they were related! Oh, how he hated when families learned how to protect themselves.

If you hadn’t realised, this story written by the conservative blogger Hamilton appears on the NRA blog. As we can see fairy tales are very much alive. I am sure they will be providing inspiration for many years to come.



What has military research done for us?

March 11, 2018

In a post eight years ago I looked at the relationship between war and technology and how war has always been an enormous driver of technological change. I am fascinated by this subject and recently read a couple of books which look at research carried out by the American military.

If you like oddball science then Mary Roach is the author for you. In previous books she has looked at cadavers, sex researchers and flatulence research. Her latest book is Grunt – The Curious Science of Humans at War. She is not looking at the latest high-tech weapons system. The book includes chapters on what to wear to war, the conundrum of military noise, genital transplants, maggot therapy, how combat medics cope and when things go wrong in submarines.

In one of the looser chapters she looks at the problem of diarrhoea. I have to say that I had never thought of the problem of soldier having the runs. Roach accompanied a researcher to the Horn of Africa to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Diarrhoea can really affect soldiers such as the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, who operate from bases in remote, rural areas, where there isn’t a safe water supply, and where the food may have been contaminated by flies. Their solution is a medicine that you take for just one day.

She also examines stink bombs. During World War II, the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA, thought that stink bombs could really help win the war, especially against the Japanese. While investigating the OSS archives Roach found that they had devoted two years to manufacturing a liquid with “the revolting odour of a very loose bowel movement.” The project’s was named Why me?. The malodorous weapon would be squirted from a 2-inch tube. It had a powerful and lasting faecal odour.  It was never deployed as Japan surrendered after the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki.

There is an account of the chicken gun, a cannon with a 60ft barrel that fires at aircraft components and even fighter planes to test the potential that they will be damaged by flying birds. Both jet engines and aircraft windshields are known to be particularly vulnerable to damage from such strikes. Apparently, the whole, dead normal chicken that you stick in the oven is perfect for simulating a large, live bird hitting a flying plane

The Imagineers of War by Sharon Weinberger looks at DARPA (The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was created in the wake of the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1958. DARPA is, as Weinberger proclaims in the book’s subtitle, the Pentagon agency that changed the world. It’s not just the Internet and GPS. The story is so much more.

Before 1972 the agency was known as ARPA and Space was originally part of its remit. But when NASA, which had also been created in 1958, took over the Space Race, DARPA had to find a new role. Vietnam was slowly emerging as a theatre of conflict. President John F. Kennedy was said to be a big fan of counterinsurgency. This type of limited asymmetric warfare was designed for fighting communist insurgents in the jungles of Vietnam and the neighbouring countries. The government funded ARPA’s Combat Development and Test Center’s Project Agile. Its research ranged from everything from electronic surveillance to sociological research. The man in charge of this was William Godel, a former intelligence operative. Researchers experimented with manipulating village food supplies by destroying rice crops, engineering population resettlement and, most infamously, deploying chemical Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used as a defoliant. Then there were the more bizarre ideas such as sending a psychoanalyst to Saigon to administer Rorschach ink-blot tests to the Viet Cong or a plan to control Vietnamese villages through mass hypnosis.

The term out of-of-the box is overused but it can be applied to Godel. They may have been “completely screwball”, but they were given funding. DARPA sought  high risk, high payoff projects. Godel wasn’t the only oddball who worked for DARPA. We also have Herman Kahn, who is said to have been one of the three inspirations for Dr. Strangelove. His idea was to build a moat around Saigon to keep out the VC. And there was Nicholas Christofilos, who wanted to create a planetary force field to protect America from nuclear weapons. This was a non-starter, so he came up with Project Seesaw, which involved a particle beam that was going to blast incoming nuclear weapons out of space. Would it be expensive to drill all these holes? No problem – just nuke them. Christofilos liked to think of it like a suppository, going through the rock, creating a perfect tube. As an effective particle beam would also drain the entire U.S. electrical grid, he proposed nuking another vast hole next to the Great Lakes, which would be  drained in just 15 minutes to power vast generators. The Greek physicist’s presentation is said to have gone down well with his fellow scientists and the project was not finally dropped until the mid-’70s.

Weinberger is critical of a narrowing of focus by DARPA. She talks about Disneyfication”: an organisation pursuing expensive gadgets with limited potential to meet the national-security challenges that the USA faces. Of course had important failures, but they also had great successes. Apart from the abovementioned Internet and GPS, they have given us the stealth aircraft, driverless cars, virtual personal assistants and battlefield robots. Weinberger believes that the big challenge facing DARPA is to be relevant for the next sixty years.

Free speech in Spain

March 4, 2018

I consider myself a free speech fundamentalist. Alas, many, both on the left and the right will only pay lip service to the idea. If you allow people freedom, they will take advantage of it. In recent years Spanish democracy has been under the spotlight. There is the situation in Catalonia, but there has also been a heated debate on free speech. I want to look at a controversial piece of legislation and a few of the cases that have emerged in the last couple of years.

In the summer of 2015 the Popular Party government of Mariano Rajoy introduced a public security law. They claimed that it would reinforce civil liberties, but opponents soon dubbed it the “gag law”. It is a wide-ranging law, which deals with demonstrations, internet, drug trafficking, drinking in the street, public interactions with the police and social media activism. There are some aspects which I find particularly troubling. The prohibition on photographing and videoing police officers is a particularly egregious example. There are fines of over $33,000 for recording and disseminating images of police officers. You just have to think of the cases of police violence against African-Americans to see what a terrible idea this is. Surely the fact that police officer fears that he may be caught on camera acts as some kind of deterrent on police brutality. There is another section dealing with disrespecting a police officer. If you show a “lack of respect” to or fail to them in the prevention of public disturbances you could be fined between €600 and €30,000.

I live in Madrid, and I can assure you that there is no shortage of demonstration. Indeed I am somewhat critical of the politics of mass protest. Under the new law, anyone who organizes or takes part in an “unauthorized protest” could be fined between €30,000 and €600,000 if the protest takes part near institutions such as the Spanish parliament

On a more trivial note there is the Spanish tradition of getting together with mates for outdoor drinking sessions. The botellon is a typical teenage rite of passage. I understand that this can cause annoyance. But a fine of €600 seems disproportionate. Parents are responsible.

César Montaña Lehmann, aka César Strawberry, is a Spanish writer, composer and singer, a member and spokesman for the group Def Con Dos. He is also a vocalist in the Strawberry Hardcore group. As a writer he has published three novels, and has contributed to an anthology. He has also written the first volume of the biography of Def Con Dos. He was sentenced to a year in prison for tweeting jokes about Eta and giving the king “a cake-bomb” for his birthday.

On Tuesday Feb. 20th 2018 the Supreme Court ratified the three-and-a-half year sentence against Jose Miguel Arenas Beltran, a rapper known as Valtonyc. He was sentenced to for “Inciting terrorism”  “insulting the crown” and threatening Jorge Campos the leader of the Círculo Balear, a political party in the Balearic Islands

Between 2013 Cassandra Vera tweeted 13 jokes about Luis Carrero Blanco, an admiral and leading Spanish politician in Francoist Spain, who was assassinated by members of the terrorist organization ETA on 20 December 1973. Here are a couple of examples:

ETA launched a policy against official cars combined with a space programme

Five months later, she tweeted:

“Kissinger gave Carrero Blanco a piece of the moon; ETA paid for the trip there.”

As the offence was not violent, she was handed a suspended sentence she fears the court’s decision will “mark me for life”. The Supreme Court has now quashed the conviction, saying it was clear that Vera had been joking. They were in very poor taste, but were familiar variations of familiar jokes about Carrero Blanco’s murder.

Santiago Sierra’s piece, Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain, was due to be exhibited at the Arco contemporary art fair in Madrid. It consists of 24 pixellated photographs, including images of the deposed Catalan vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, and two leading figures in influential Catalan pro-independence groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez of Òmnium Cultural,  a pro-independence organisation. They are all currently in prison. It was taken down. Despite the protestations of the organisers, it is hard not to interpret this as an act of censorship. I have been critical of the Catalonian independence movement, but all you are doing is giving the oxygen of publicity to the artist. Indeed, he must be looking forward to the cash rolling in.

It’s like the FA charging Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola for wearing a yellow ribbon. Guardiola is concerned about human rights in Catalonia. However he has no qualms about managing a club that is bankrolled by a ruling family not characterised by its love for democracy. He likes to sing the praises of Sheikh Mansour and the owners of Manchester City, whose fortune has largely been built on slave labour. If I were a journalist I would call out Guardiola every time he chooses to don the abovementioned ribbon. Kudos to the journalist Rob Harris, who had the balls to ask Guardiola the question in the press conference after City’s victory in the Caprabo Cup last week.

What strikes me about these cases is the lack of intelligence demonstrated by the authorities. I am disturbed by a lot of the vague language employed by prosecutors such as tweets “a real threat” or a cause of “social alarm”. I do not agree with banning the “wrong kind of speech”. Freedom of speech is not an absolute right. I draw the line at inciting violence. But freedom of speech laws exist to allow words that are not reasonable. Cassandra Vera has argued that freedom of expression has been dealt an almost fatal blow in Spain. This is not true. We need to put this in context. Spain is a free country. There is a free press, rule of law is guaranteed. In 2017 the country’s score dropped from 8.30 to 8.08 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. On the Reporters Without Borders website Spain, 29, is above the UK, 40. I don’t know the methodologies of these surveys but Spain is consistently listed as a free country in any serious international survey. These are, however, illiberal and ultimately stupid laws. I am hoping that they will soon be repealed.

Peter Tatchell on Freedom of speech

March 4, 2018

Wise words from a veteran campaigner.

12 of my favourite eponyms

February 25, 2018

In my post about naming diseases I referred to the use of eponyms. In previous articles I have looked at bowdlerise, morphine and Luddite. This week I wanted to look at a dozen of my favourites:

  1. Candido Jacuzzi invented the whirlpool bath for his son who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.
  2. The dinner jacket for semiformal evening dress takes its name from the Tuxedo Park Country Club, New York.
  3. The Greek god Pan, who could cause sudden, contagious fear in people and animals through the power of his voice, gives us the word panic.
  4. Jean Nicot (1530-1600), the French ambassador to Portugal, who promoted smoking by sending tobacco seeds and leaves to France in the mid 16th century gives us nicotine, the colourless, oily, water-soluble, highly toxic, liquid alkaloid.
  5. Decibel is a strange one. It was coined by telephone engineers. It was first called “bel” after Alexander Graham Bell. The deci comes from the Latin word for ten.
  6. Frenchman Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), Controller-General of Finances under Louis XV, loved to tax his fellow citizens. The dark image outlined against a lighter background is said to refer the victims of his taxes were reduced to mere shadows of themselves.
  7. Sam Maverick (1803-1870), a Texas politician and rancher who refused to brand his cattle, gives us the word for a non-conformist.
  8. Zanni from the Commedia dell’arte is a clown who wears a mask with a long, downward curving beak in the Italian. This gives the word zany.
  9. Jumbo, a 62 ton African elephant exhibited at London Zoo in the 19th century, give us the word for extremely large.
  10. Mr. Boffin, a character from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, gives us the word for an egghead.
  11. Syphilis, the infectious venereal disease, is from a 16th century poem by Veronese doctor Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553), which tells the tale of the shepherd Syphilus, said to be the first sufferer of the disease.
  12. A photographer in the film La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo gives us the name for the camera-wielding celebrity hunters.

The woman who can’t forget

February 18, 2018

Becky Sharrock

What’s your earliest memory? One thing I’m sure of is that it does not go back to when you were 12 days old. For Brisbane resident Becky Sharrock it is all too real. This young Australian can remember every one of her 28 birthdays. I have long been fascinated by how we male memories. In a post I wrote nine years ago, Memories are made of this, I referred to the case of HM, who after a botched lobotomy, was unable to make any new memories. I then looked at declarative memory for records names, faces, and new experiences, and motor memory for such things as riding a bike, driving a car or using a toothbrush. After this I explored I how memories can go wrong. Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. Every time we remember something we are prone to subtle biases. Finally I talked about how some people are able to train themselves to perform prodigious memory feats.

Becky Sharrock’s case is different. She suffers from an exceptionally rare condition which is known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory or HSAM. I heard about her life on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind podcast. HSAM, which is also known as hyperthymesia, was first diagnosed just 12 years ago, and there are said to be some 60 people in the world who have it. This is surely an underestimate, but it is vanishingly rare. It was in 2006 that the American neurobiologists from the University of California-Irvine made an important discovery. A team led by James McGaugh reported the first known first diagnosis of HSAM for Jill Price, a woman, from Southern California, who would inspire more research into the condition.

People with HSAM have a fantastic memory for dates. But this aspect should not be confused with the people  like Dominic O’Brien who was able to memorise a random sequence of 2808 playing cards (54 packs) after looking at each card only once. O’Brien employs mnemonic techniques, whereas Sharrock’s memories come naturally. They also have an incredible recall for mundane details. Curiously, they do not show exceptional memory in other domains apart from autobiographical memory. Thus they don’t tend to be good at rote learning.

Here is an example of the way Sharrock’s memory works:

4 September 2006 was a Monday, and on that particular day I was going to my therapist who I was seeing for my autism. I was on my way to see him when my stepdad called my mum and said, ‘Did you hear Steve Irwin died from a stingray?’ And I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘No, I didn’t hear of that,’ because Steve Irwin, I looked at him as invincible to any animal attack. He’d done so many daring things with crocodiles, I thought there’s no way on earth Steve Owen could have died. But then I saw the news afterwards and it was true, and it was sad, and especially since he had two young children and the time and it was sad for…it was sad for Terri, and it was sad that little Robert who was only two years old at the time, that he didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time with his dad, yeah.

Her facility for remembering everything can be unnerving for Sharrock’s mother as her daughter has a word-for-word recollection of what her mother said. She can pick her mother up on what she said five years ago.

Her memories also trigger associated powerful emotions, which can be a real problem.  This is the real curse of HSAM. You end up reliving negative memories. Here is an example of how her emotions come to the fore:

I was walking down a path and I saw a leaf on the ground which was at a similar angle to how it was at a time when I was walking home from school, and when I re-lived that time, on that particular day after I walked home from school I had been bullied that day. So the emotions when that memory was formed, I was depressed because a bully said something to me. Then years later when I saw a leaf that was similar to one that I saw on the path walking home, I again re-lived just the depression and the feeling of hopelessness that I experienced back at that time.

Obviously, this makes life very hard. She gets a lot of headaches. Sleep is also a big challenge; she is often kept awake by her intense memories. She has to have her brain stimulated to help her to fall asleep.

Sharrock also re-feels physical pain and re-tastes food. This is great if the memory is associated with Black Forest gateaux, her favourite. She can actually re-taste the cream, the chocolate and the cherries. It’s worse when it comers to re–experiencing pain.  Sharrock has synaesthesia when she thinks about certain objects or things she gets unusual associations. She has a heightened perception of stimuli. She has been diagnosed with both OCD and autism. How these interact and what links there might be between them is a controversial area.

From reading about Becky Sharrock, I found that a lot of the science is rather tentative. After all, the condition was only diagnosed just over a decade ago. The physiological basis has not been clearly established. We do not really know how their memories work. Sharrock describes what she remembers of when she was twelve days old. I’m not sure how we can know if they are real. However, if they are genuine, HSAM could also shed light on how babies and children view the world. I suppose we also learn the value of forgetting. They may have superior memories, but they are also capable of forming false memories. Indeed, up until now, no group has been found that were immune to these flawed memories.

There is no doubt that Rebecca Sharrock has had a challenging life. Nevertheless, the fact that scientists are researching the condition and that she does not feel alone has helped her establish an identity and even a career path. Self-employed, she blogs for a company called SpecialKids.Company, which makes and sell purpose-made clothes for children with disabilities. Her contribution is to write posts giving her insights. She has a YouTube channel and gives public talks. What an uplifting story!

I’ll finish a video of Sharrock reciting Harry Potter from memory:

How illnesses are named?

February 11, 2018

Doctor to patient: The bad news is you have disease unknown to medical science – the good news is I’m going to name it after me.


Where do the names of diseases, illnesses, conditions and syndromes come from? The history of the way we give names to diseases is colourful and controversial. It is a story of confusion, national rivalries, stigma and controversial scientists. The names we give to diseases reflect our current medical knowledge, but they are also a product of our societies. This is a fascinating historical journey.

Many of the names of illnesses have traditionally been eponymous. Medical eponyms are terms used in medicine that are named after people, and less frequently places or things. Although there are eponyms from patients such as Lou Gehrig disease (ALS), it is far more typical to take the name of the discovering doctor or scientist – Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease, Tourette syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome and Hodgkin’s lymphoma are well-known examples. One thing I did not know was that Salmonellosis is an eponym too. The epidemiologist Theobald Smith, who isolated the bacteria in 1885, named the bacteria salmonella in honour of his boss, Daniel Elmer Salmon, a veterinary pathologist in charge of a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry research program during the late 19th century.

Sometimes the name taken can be controversial. Reiter’s syndrome is “a medical condition typically affecting young men, characterized by arthritis, conjunctivitis, and urethritis, and caused by an unknown pathogen, possibly a Chlamydia.” The problem is that Hans Reiter was an infamous Nazi war criminal who carried out terrible experiments on inmates at Buchenwald. He had discovered the syndrome in 1916 when he treated a soldier during the First World War. Now it is often referred to as reactive arthritis.

I do think that it rather bizarre to have a condition disease or a deadly microbe named in your honour. I suppose it is a way of achieving immortality, but I wouldn’t think that it would make your future in-laws feel particularly well-disposed towards you. There has been a move away from such eponyms. There are a number of reasons for this. These names provide no information to medical professionals. And imagine having to memorise all these surnames. The condition Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome, which involves congenital anomalies in or absence of the uterus and vagina, must be a nightmare to remember. This is why is also known as Müllerian agenesis or RKHS syndrome. What’s more science has become a much more collaborative enterprise, where it has become increasingly difficult to name just one person. I love the human stories behind eponyms, but I can see they may belong to another era.

What do Lyme Disease, Guinea Worm, German Measles, Ebola, and Lassa Fever have in common? They belong to another branch of eponymous name, ones which refer to the place where the disease allegedly originated. I use the word allegedly for good reason; many times the name does not reflect the medical reality. The classic case of this is the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. There was nothing particularly Spanish about this catastrophic epidemic, which left more than fifty million people dead. Why did Spain get the blame for this? As Spain was neutral in WWI, the Spanish government did not censor newspapers, as happened in the countries which were fighting. They did not want to lower morale. The Spanish press did print information about some deaths in Madrid, which were thus believed to have been the first cases. In fact, there had already been an outbreak in the USA, but it was hushed up.

This human tendency to blame whatever country they hate the most other areas for an illness is best shown in this map I found online. The disease in question is syphilis. Click on ther image:

AIDS provides another example of our tendency to lay the blame on unpopular social groups. It was originally known as GRID (gay related immune deficiency). I also saw 4H disease (haemophiliacs, homosexuals, heroin users, and Haitians. The names can also be misleading. In the case of swine flu it was humans who infected pigs, not pigs infecting humans. Nevertheless, a 2009 pandemic in Egypt led the Egyptian government to order a comprehensive hog slaughter. The pigs belonged to the much set-upon Coptic Christians. There was no scientific justification for the cull.

All this has led to the WHO introducing guidelines.  You can find them online:

The best practices state that a disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea) and more specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, and salmonella).

 Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

The reality is that it is really hard to find the right name. Let’s take Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I have almost no idea about the work of Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob. They did seem to have interesting lives. Creutzfeldt, who was 54 years old when WWII broke out, was not a Nazi supporter. Indeed, he saved a number of people from certain death in concentration camps, and also managed to rescue almost all of his patients from being euthanized under the Nazi Aktion T4 program. Be that as it may, the name is not very informative. However, transmissible spongiform encephalitis means little to me. However, there are worse examples. If you look at the longest words in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, they all seem to be medical in nature, but this is my intuition.

hepaticocholangiogastrostomy – 28 letters

spectrophotofluorometrically – 28 letters

pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism – 30 letters

These mash-ups of Latin and Greek roots are just incomprehensible to me.

The longest word in any of the major English language dictionaries is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a word that refers to a lung disease contracted from the inhalation of very fine silica particles, specifically from a volcano; medically, it is the same as silicosis. The word seems to have been deliberately coined to be the longest word in English. What some people will do to get attention! In the end when it comes to epidemics, you also need a word that is catchy, that alerts the public to the dangers. To do all of this does strike me as extremely complicated. It is very difficult to control language. we may well need to develop a dual system – one for the public and another for professionals.


If you are interested in this topic, there are a couple of interesting podcasts:

Allusionist 45: Eponyms II – Name That Disease.

BBC Word of Mouth: Naming Diseases