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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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


Great writers breaking grammatical rules

January 21, 2018

As I Have posted before I am a sceptic about many of the grammatical rules that we learned at school. Here are some famous writers breaking them:

Starting a sentence with a conjunction

He had never seen a home, so there was nothing for him to say about it. And he was not old enough to talk and say nothing at the same time.” (Light in August, William Faulkner)

Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance—these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. (Four Essays on Liberty, Isaiah Berlin)

Double negatives

“I cannot go no further.” (As You Like It, Shakespeare)

“I never was nor never will be.”  (Richard III, Shakespeare)

Ending a sentence or independent clause with a preposition

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest, Shakespeare)

Using ‘they’ and ‘their’ with a singular antecedent

If everybody minded their own business… (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll)

Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. (Oscar Wilde)

Comma Splices

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” from A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Double superlative

This was the most unkindest cut of all. (Julius Caesar, Shakespeare)

Splitting infinitives

“It seemed that he had caught [the fish] himself, years ago, when he was quite a lad; not by any art or skill, but by that unaccountable luck that appears to always wait upon a boy when he plays the wag from school.” (Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome)

“Milton was too busy to much miss his wife.” (Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, Samuel Johnson)


The words they are a changin’: why it’s OK to use literally to mean figuatively

November 19, 2017

We laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability; shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay. Samuel Johnson

Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives. We must take a deep breath and, like the people initially so put off by Darwinism, embrace reality, this time linguistic. Among the many benefits of doing so: wonder replaces disgust, curiosity replaces condemnation, and overall, you have a lot more fun. John McWhorter from Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally).

I have recently finished reading John McWhorter’s 2016 book on how the meanings of words evolve: Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally). It is a book that looks at the way the meanings of words have changed and are changing right now. His central thesis is that we should be a lot more relaxed about what is going on. The book is full of revealing insights and you find yourself stopping every two or three pages, wowed by McWhorter’s latest gem. The linguist loves to analogise. He invokes fade-out endings in pop music, pre-ripped blue jeans, tool sheds, fads in baby names, junk DNA, living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen and the Victorian party game of creating a tableau vivant to get his ideas across.

The use of literally is one thing that is guaranteed to get any self-respecting pedant’s blood boiling. Thee word originally was another variation on indicating truth, more specifically exactness, as in “by the letter”. But words are not pressed flowers and it was inevitably going to morph into other meanings. As McWhorter points out, literally in its original meaning of by the letter no longer makes sense except as a metaphor. We were literally the only ones there; we were literally on the brink of a depression. There are no letters involved. Literally began to get more personal. It has become a way of venting, of attesting to the vividness of our personal sentiments when we are describing an experience we have had. I was literally dying of thirst. This is an area of language called pragmatics, the study of meaning in the interactional context, looking beyond literal meanings of words. Literally has become a discourse marker, a way to flag sincerity.

OK, so the meaning of words drift, but what irritates people is that this current use of literally is the direct opposite of what it should mean. But this is not unusual in the English language. There is an interesting category of words and phrases called contronyms, terms that, depending on context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings. Literally is one of them. The website Daily Writing Tips has an excellent list of 75 such terms. Here is a selection of other contronyms:

Apology: A statement of contrition for an action, or a defence of one

Bolt: To secure, or to flee

Bound: Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement

Buckle: To connect, or to break or collapse

Cleave: To adhere, or to separate

Custom: A common practice, or a special treatment

Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them

Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable

Fine: Excellent, or acceptable or good enough

First degree: Most severe in the case of a murder charge, or least severe in reference to a burn

Fix: To repair, or to castrate

Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat

Handicap: An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement

Hold up: To support, or to impede

Left: Remained, or departed

Mean: Average or stingy, or excellent

Off: Deactivated, or activated, as an alarm

Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, in reference to lights

Out of: Outside, or inside, as in working out of a specific office

Overlook: To supervise, or to neglect

Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee

Peer: A person of the nobility, or an equal

Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part

Quite: Rather (as a qualifying modifier), or completely

Rent: To purchase use of something, or to sell use

Sanction: To approve, or to boycott

Sanguine: Confidently cheerful, or bloodthirsty

Scan: To peruse, or to glance

Seed: To sow seeds, or to shed or remove them

Trip: A journey, or a stumble

Variety: A particular type, or many types

Wind up: To end, or to start up

Do such words create mass chaos? No, we are generally able to pick up the meaning from context. If you say you are bound for London, I don’t think that you are trussed up. When they say on CSI that they are going to dust for fingerprints, I don’t think Grissom is going to bring out the duster. If I read that the Bank of England is responsible for oversight of the financial system I don’t think they job is to fail to oversee the banks. Well, actually in that case…

I agree with McWhorter that is actually quite cool that a word can literally mean both itself and its opposite. This is what makes studying a language so much fun.

One part of the book that I found fascinating was when he explained the process of grammaticalization. This is a process of semantic change by which nouns and verbs which represent objects and actions become grammatical markers such as affixes, prepositions and auxiliary verbs. In the latter category he provides us with plenty of examples. The modal verb can comes from the Old English cunnan, which meant know, an etymology which is reflected in such words as canny and cunning. What’s more, the past tense of cunnan was a word pronounced “coothe,” from which the couth in uncouth comes. The uncouth person lacks know-how, that is the knowledge of how to behave in polite society. Another typical modal ought’ originally meant ‘owed’. He also looks at affixes. The suffix ‘-ly’ is a contraction of ‘like’, a word which originally meant body. In the case of a word such as slowly, the original form would have been slow-like. And the past tense ending ed, it comes from the proto-Germanic did, as in walk-did.

There is much more in this book. He defends irregardless, stating that it is human nature to try to make sure that words are strong enough to do the job required. For instance, whelm used to mean what “overwhelm” means now. He also talks about


Text neck and other new words

October 15, 2017

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

beach-spreading

Taking up more than one’s fair share of space on a crowded beach.

entropy tourism

Travel that features places of decay, neglect, or abandonment.

fatberg

A massive, hardened agglomeration of fatty substances, particularly one found in a sewer and caused by homeowners and businesses pouring fats down drains.

fearonomics

The negative impact of fear and anxiety on economic activity; the use of fear to sell products and services.

gloatrage

Triumphant satisfaction that a person’s behaviour is as bad as expected, combined with outrage at that behaviour

granny nanny

A grandmother who cares for her grandchildren while their parents are working.

neighbor spoofing

Using a false caller ID to make a scam phone call appear to originate in the callee’s local area.

racecation

A trip that combines participating in a race, such as a marathon or triathlon, and a vacation.

situationship

A relationship between two people that is more than a friendship, but less than a romance.

text neck

Neck and upper back pain caused by an excessive and prolonged forward head tilt, such as when texting or performing other mobile device tasks.

wokeness

The state of being aware of and sensitive to social justice issues.


Misleading or what?

June 17, 2017

This week Fox News finally dropped its fair and balanced slogan, which was introduced by the US channel’s founder, the late Roger Ailes, when he set it up in 1996. For a channel whose presenters have included Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck this is stretching it a bit. Trump’s favourite news channel now has a replacement is “Most Watched. Most Trusted.”

This got me thinking about misleading names and slogans. A quick search on the internet found the following:
• Flying lemurs are neither lemurs nor do they fly.
• Panama hats actually come from Ecuador, but came to be associated with the building of the Panama Canal.
• While dry cleaning may not involve water, it does require the use of liquid solvents.
• Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. The game, which was invented in Germany, was rebranded Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. It was invented in Germany in 1892; the name was changed to make the game more marketable in 1928, the year in which my father was born.

But it is in politics that these questions become interesting. We have joke names like the German Democratic Republic or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is anything but. The National Bolshevik Party sounds Marxist, but is in reality a right-wing, anti-Semitic fringe party. Although I do seem to remember in my history class that Bolshevik is Russian for member of the majority faction. This was itself an example of a manipulative use of language as they weren’t really the majority.

Both Left and right use words as weapons. One successful example was the term dementia tax to describe the Conservative policy of counting people’s home as an asset when it comes to paying for the care. It was highly effective. I did hear one criticism that it was borrowing the right’s meme of taxes as something negative, as in expressions such as tax relief. By adding relief to tax you are implying that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. In a post I did about metaphors I mentioned the linguist George Lakoff, who wanted Democrats to talk about membership fees, what you pay to live in a civilized, democratic society. I really don’t see that one working, but I might be wrong. This is what Lakoff calls framing. He argues that successful political discourse is able to impose its metaphors over those of the opposition. You are implying that the earth is a big, huggable Gaia that can be befriended. Those for and against abortion like to frame the debate with pro-choice and pro-life. I haven’t read Unspeak, but I have seen these videos.

A different point of view is that of the Guardian’s Steven Poole, who coined the term Unspeak. In this sense Poole is an heir of George Orwell and his language of tyranny, newspeak. Wikipedia has a glossary of Newspeak:
doublethink the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct
goodsex intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children and without physical pleasure
thoughtcrime – the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question Ingsoc
Unperson – someone who has been “vaporized”—not only killed by the state, but erased from existence.

Unspeak is a term or phrase that contains an unstated political argument. In the book, which he published more than a decade ago he took eight words – community, nature, tragedy, operations, terror, abuse; freedom and extremism – to show how they can be used to frame the debate. He gives some examples. For example if you say Friends of the Earth, does that make your opponents enemies of the earth? Unlike Lakoff, Poole thinks that fighting unspeak with unspeak is a bad tactic. From what I have read about human psychology it is naïve to think you can win arguments based on pure rationality.


The Internet and quotations

June 11, 2017

The Internet is awash with quotes. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. They may reveal profound truths or the bromides of positive psychology. In my blog I have used hundreds, or maybe even thousands. There is something deeply satisfying about a good quote. And they are powerful memes, which on internet can spread all over the world in seconds.  However, many have become the literary equivalent of fake news.

Recently the Republican Party was subject to a lot of mockery after they falsely attributed a quote to one of their great leaders from the past – Abraham Lincoln. The quote itself was rather banal; they tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with a quote: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Lincoln never said this.

Luckily there is a man who investigates the origins of quotes. Garson O’Toole is the quotation sleuth. Fittingly, for someone who investigates fake quotes, this is actually a pseudonym. Gregory F. Sullivan, a former teacher and researcher in the Johns Hopkins computer science department is the man behind the blog Quote Investigator, and he now has a new book, Hemmingway Never Said That. Sullivan is good at providing a typography of how quotes can go wrong.  Sometimes they get streamlined over time. Churchill never said “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.” It was actually “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But this went against the rule of three. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” According to The New York Times What he actually said was: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

What often happens is that famous people often get the credit for something that was said by somebody less famous. Some famous people, such as Mark Twain, Gandhi, and Albert Einstein are quote magnets. Mark Twain is often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, but ironically he probably didn’t invent the phrase. Albert Einstein did not say: Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” The true source, as is often the case is unknown. And that famous Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”, may well have been said by Francois Guizot, a 19th century French historian, orator, and statesman, but this is not sure either. That classic Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, was actually a summary of his views by the author S.G. Tallentyre in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire. Tallentyre was a pseudonym used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire. Sometimes a quote is attributed to a historical figure because of what appears in a in a film, novel or other work of fiction. Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks does say it in the film; this was never said by Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13.

Apart from misquotes the Internet is also replete with positive psychology quotes aka bullshit. A couple of years ago there was a study, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls**t, by Gordon Pennycook, a cognitive psychologist, in the journal Judgement and Decision Making. This seems to have been misreported by the Daily Mail: “People who post inspirational quotes on Facebook and Twitter ‘have lower levels of intelligence.”   I do not think it is a question of intelligence, but it is necessary to have a healthy dose of scepticism. I hate bullshit but it can come from New Age gurus, the corporate sector or postmodern academics.  In a previous post I mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get an article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. This, despite the fact that it was a nonsensical spoof based on mathematical absurdities and ideas and quotes borrowed from various postmodernist philosophers. What we all need is what Carl Sagan called a baloney detection kit.

My favourite example was cited by Sullivan. Samuel Johnson chided James Boswell for coming out with some fashionable platitude: My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. Now, however this has been reinvented as a positive thinking slogan, clear your mind of can’t. This is exactly the kind of cliché that Johnson was urging Boswell to avoid!

I admire the debunking work of people like Sullivan. With the exponential growth in the use of quotations, we need people like him. Does it matter when we get a quotation wrong? Maybe sometimes we can get at a greater truth. Sometimes the truth can get in the way of a good quote. As Mark Twain said: “What’s the point of life if you can’t make up a quotation from time to time.”