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.
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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.

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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.

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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


Adapting books: turning oxen into bouillon cubes

February 4, 2018

Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes. John le Carré

As an author, you can’t expect a movie to be an illustration of the book. If that’s what you hope for, you shouldn’t sell the rightsBernhard Schlink

When you’re making a movie of a book, people are always waiting with their knives.    Joel Edgerton

A book can be a great friend, an advisor, a means to an end. A book reveals so much more than a movie would ever do. For example, when I watched the movie “The Hours” I was fascinated by the story. Just a year later I decided to read the book. And what was my surprise that I was even more dazzled by its writings than I was by the images… The images in my head were more vivid than the film could ever transport me to that feminine universe that the author was trying (and so successfully granted me) to conceiveAna Claudia Antunes

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Auguste and Louis Lumiere recorded their first footage of workers leaving a factory on 13 February 1895. It didn’t take long for moviemakers to seek out books. It is hard to say which is the first ever adaptation as many silent movies have been lost. There were William K.L. Dickson’s eight short films based on Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. When I say short they seem to have been under a minute. The 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès was inspired by a couple of Jules Verne’s novels, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. It is also frequently referred to as the first science fiction film. In contrast to Rip Van Winkle we the legendary German director Erich von Stroheim’s rendering of a Frank Norris novel Greed. This silent 1924 MGM film was originally 462 minutes long, although it was cut down to 140 minutes for cinematic release. Since these early days there have been many more. But is it a good idea to take a 500-page novel and put it on the silver screen?

For me there are two fundamental disadvantages of adapting books to the silver screen. The first of these is that you have to leave out so much. This is the same argument when you have an abridged audiobook. You have to concentrate on the plot. This is a fine, but there is so much more to a book than this. The larger canvas a novel provides allows the authors to develop their characters. The second obvious drawback is that books let readers use their imaginations. It is invariably a disappointment to see a director’s vision of what we have already imagined. If you really love a book it’s highly unlikely that a film will make you want to be unfaithful. I feel that way about Bonfire of the Vanities. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was another big let-down. You’re much better off with the books or the radio series.

Films do have their advantages too. Imagination is good, but directors can produce some spectacular images. If you add brilliant acting, what’s not to love? What’s more life is short. We don’t have time to read all the books out there. Sometimes I prefer to spend a couple of hours enjoying the film. It is true that once I’ve seen the film I find it almost impossible to read the book. I realise that this is not completely logical as they are often very different. It’s just that I find it difficult to invest the ten hours that a book may well take me. I have read both the Silence of the Lambs and Jaws, and I liked both of them, but I think the films were better.  There are others where I imagine that the film may be better but I can’t be sure as I haven’t actually read the book: The Godfather Psycho and Doctor Strangelove come to mind

I have long thought that TV is a better way to adapt. You do lose some of the cinematic brilliance, but you do avoid the biggest problem the lack of time. This is clearly seen with the TV adaptation of I, Claudius. I love the book, but the TV series is spectacular. It is not for spectacular special effects; what it does have is brilliant acting and the time to develop the story. And in recent years we have seen the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu we now have adaptations with high production values. Over the last few years I have enjoyed a number of excellent adaptations Show Me a Hero, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Night Manager and Decline and Fall. What I like now is that many of the dramas are base on non-fiction. This year we have TV series such as McMafia, Sharp Objects, The Alienist, Fahrenheit 451 and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story to look forward to.

In the end the best option is to enjoy all the different cultural forms. I think there is much choice out there. The only problem is to find the time.