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In Association with
Weird & Wonderful Words for Diseases


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 ‘strength, health’.

Excerpted from Weird & Wonderful Words by Erin McKean. Copyright © 2003 Oxford University Press, Inc. Excerpted by arrangement Oxford University Press, Inc. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.

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