Weird & Wonderful
Words for Diseases
IRREGULAR & INCREDIBLE ILLNESSES
Edited by Erin McKean
Many words for diseases are certainly weird, and it takes a morbid
turn of mind to find them wonderful. It’s not clear where
to lay the blame for the weirdness of medical words. Difficult
Greek and Latin roots are always good suspects, as is the natural
desire of the healer to obfuscate, so as to seem to be the holder
of arcane knowledge (and thus the only one with a cure). And,
as is often the case, when the words are weird, what they mean
is even weirder. Who would want to suffer from alastrim ‘a
contagious disease that resembles smallpox’? (Even the slightest
resemblance to smallpox is too much of one.) Or ascarias ‘infestation
of the gastrointestinal canal’? (The citation for this one
in the OED is a particular horror: “An epidemic of ascariasis
on a skunk-farm.” [1923 Nature 19 May]) “You’ve
got bagassosis” sounds like a schoolyard taunt, but it has
nothing to do with too-big trousers. It’s a disease of the
lungs from inhaling the dust of sugar cane waste. While you’re
worrying about your lungs you can ponder byssinosis – a
chronic disease of the lungs caused by inhalation of fine textile
particles, especially cotton dust, over a long period. How long
have you been inhaling cotton dust, anyway? (Ever since the first
time you pulled a t-shirt over your head, probably.)
At this point you may want to initiate decumbiture–the act
of going to bed when sick. (This word is formed irregularly from
Latin. If it had been formed “correctly” it would be
decubiture. Perhaps the coiner was too ill to care.) The word is
also used to describe an astrological reading taken for the time
you took to your bed, in order to determine (by consulting the stars
and planets) if you will live or die.
Perhaps your disorder is not purely physical. If, when set on your
feet, you begin to leap, you may have saltatoric spasms. You may
repeat the same word or phrase in a meaningless fashion, or verbigerate.
If you have ever lived in Siberia, or certain non-European countries,
you may have miryachit, a disease in which the sufferer mimics everything
said or done by another. Like nearly everyone else, you might have
fever-lurden ‘the disease o/f laziness’.
Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. You might seek dipsopathy
‘treating disease by abstaining from liquids’. This
word comes from Greek words meaning ‘thirst’ and ‘suffering’
and was modeled on the words homeopathy and hydropathy. As might
be expected, neither the cure nor the word ever really caught on.
If that doesn’t sound soothing, you could go in for glossoscopy
‘the inspection or observation of the tongue for the purposes
of diagnosis’. That is, if you can find a competent glossologist.
Do you still feel meseling ‘leprous’? Don’t worry,
you just might run into a charming leprophil ‘person who is
attracted to lepers’.
Did reading this nosology ‘list or catalogue of known diseases’
make you ill? Here’s wishing you a quick return to invalescence
Excerpted from Weird & Wonderful Words by
Erin McKean. Copyright © 2003 Oxford University Press, Inc.
Excerpted by arrangement Oxford University Press, Inc. $14.95.
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