I find that the more we understand about the world, the less imaginative our names for diseases. Your stomach hurts? We can look at your blood work, X-ray your gut after a barium meal and, hey presto, you have appendicitis. LAME! Maybe you’ve got The Irritable Ghosts and what’s happening is that the ghosts that are inhabting your scrotum are banging on the roof because your lungs are too loud. Treatment is shutting up and dying prematurely. Let’s explore the names of other diseases.
Thomas fact: I studied Latin for 5 years in high school and quite enjoyed it. Ms. Zakis seemed like a bit of a technophobe (she showed us slides from her holiday to Rome on a 35mm slide projector) so she’s probably not reading this now, but “Hi, Ms. Zakis” if you are.
Anyway, one of the lasting things in my memory apart from the first and second declensions (servus serve servum servi servo servo, servi servi servos servorum servis servis…) is that the Ancient Romans got hit hard by malaria and this may have hastened the fall of the Roman empire. In fact, their descendants in medieval Italy gave us the name malaria from mala aria or “bad air”. They hypothesised that malaria came from breathing in the rotting stench of marshes and swamps, to the point where they started draining them as a disease control measure. They weren’t too far from source; mosquitos carrying the malaria parasite were prevalent in the stagnant waters near the swamps of Italy.
Next door (empirically speaking), the Ancient Greeks were leaking out of their togas. Unsavory men would find it painful to urinate and look like they were continually ejaculating. They named this disease gonorrhoea meaning “flowing of seed”. What was actually happening was that these guys had the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae growing in their urinary tracts. Their immune systems would send white blood cells to the site to eat up the bacteria. During the process, the white blood cells would die, bloated full of now-inactivated bacteria. The dead white blood cells would build up to such a degree that rivers of them would flow forth in the form of pus.
If they lived through that, in their old age they might develop grotesque lumps all over their body. These growths might burst through the skin and reveal their seeping, decaying interiors. They’d be accompanied with a chronic vice-like pain, as if they were being pinched by a giant crab, or cancer in Greek. Of course, the ancients probably didn’t know that cancer was composed of the body’s own cells and most certainly didn’t know that cancer was actually hundreds of different diseases with just as many causes.
Syphilis was also a problem in ancient times (and has been until recently when penicillin was invented in the 1940s). The name syphilis came from a character’s name in an early 15th century poem by a Veronese doctor Girolamo Fracastroro called “Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus“, literally Syphilis or the French Disease. In this poem, Syphilis the shepherd is named as the first sufferer of the disease.
Later on, this disease picked up the euphemistic title The Great Pox. As I’d described earlier, one of the earliest signs of syphilis was a large (big as the end of your finger) painless ulcer at the site of infection. Once healed, it would leave a great, big pock mark. This differentiated it from the other disease going around at the time, smallpox. This would leave its victims disfigured with tiny pocks all over their body, as if they’d been fired upon with birdshot.
Anyway, the golden age of disease etymology seems to be over. The classical names of Consumption, Shingles and The Kissing Disease have slowly been replaced by the precise awkward terms of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and primary hepatocellular carcinoma. Maybe one day we will regain the poetry of diseases…