Thursday, 28 August 2014

Give me a break, if only to cut through the medical jargon

As we all know, or if we don’t know, are likely to discover by bitter experience, all professions are a conspiracy against the laity.

As the man who coined that phrase, that fine Englishman and native of Dublin, George Bernard Shaw, was all too aware – he advanced the conspiracy charge in his play The Doctor’s Dilemma – the medical profession is one of the worst offenders. And it has made a fine art of one of the great tools of such conspiracy, the use of opaque language to baffle and mislead the uninitiated. 

The patient's friend
No reason to suspect him of
using obscure terms deliberately
Take, for example, that terrible, debilitating and fatal condition known as Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

I wouldn’t quibble with the word disease. MND certainly is one, and a particularly nasty one to boot.

Motor is a bit confusing. It usually represents something that’s noisy, smelly, expensive to fuel and even more expensive to maintain. Just like the human body. But the human body doesn’t contain one.

Still, it doesn’t take long to work out that the word motor is linked to motion. As for neurones, we all know people who seem to have none, and from that it’s not hard to deduce that MND is a ghastly condition that attacks bits of the brain that keep you moving.

So not immediately obvious, but you can work it out in time.

But now consider ALS. This is the thing that’s pouring cold water on so much good cheer these days. It’s the term the medical profession has come up with to replace MND, presumably because they felt the old name wasn’t obscure enough. It stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

What the heck?

Nasty trick. It
’s all wrong from the outset, because it combines Latin and Greek terms in the same expression. CP Scott, legendary editor of the Guardian, said “television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.” He may have been wrong about TV, but he was right about the word.

That first “A”. It’s Greek for “Not”. So basically we’re saying it’s not myotrophic lateral sclerosis. I don’t know about you, but I find it slightly suspicious when someone tells me what something isn’t. Presumably there are lots of things it isn’t. Tell me what it is, I’m inclined to ask.

What about “myotrophic”? More Greek. For muscle and feeding. So we
re being told it’s non-muscle feeding. Seriously? It’s Motor Neurone Disease. Did anyone imagine it might have the same effect as some kind of body-building drug?

Lateral? We
’ve switched to Latin, and it’s obviously wrong. The condition affects everywhere, not just the sides.

And sclerosis? Back to Greek. The word for hardening. Yeah, right.

The poor guy is coming apart at the seams and we say he’s hardening?

ALS: the term’s obviously designed to mislead. Go along with it, and you might end up doing any kind of crazy thing. Like, say, getting a bucket of iced water dumped on your head.

But stop! Here
’s a pleasant surprise. Precisely because the medical profession’s so sneaky in its designations for things, I was delighted to discover that the abbreviation for a fracture is a hash sign (#). Like a sharp in music. 

Unlike such underhand terms as ALS, isn’t that just beautifully transparent and honest? When you break a bone, it’s usually because you’ve made a hash of things, like my wife reaching for a shuttle too far on the badminton court, tipping over and cracking a foot. And boy, the pain is sharp, as she discovered.

The medics got that one right.

So here’s my plea to all physicians. End your conspiracy against the laity. Go for limpid language, not the learned and obscure. More of the #, please, less of the non-muscle-feeding-sideways-hardening.


Anonymous said...

"As we all know, or if we don’t know, are likely to discover by bitter experience, all professions are a conspiracy against the laity."
Are you sure you didn't mean ... a conspiracy against Italy?

David Beeson said...

Who'd want to conspire against that lovely country?