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Mind your language

Syndromes: they have made their escape from the medical world

The inventor of Stockholm syndrome missed a chance to incorporate his own name

9 December 2017

9:00 AM

9 December 2017

9:00 AM

‘You must have Tired Old Woman Syndrome,’ said my husband as I fell back into an armchair with a sigh after a morning clearing out the kitchen cabinets. It had to be done. He of course had just been sitting in the drawing-room waiting for a plausibly respectable hour to have a drink. His abuse was not utterly random, for we had been discussing Tired Mountain Syndrome. It is being blamed for small earthquakes near Mount Mantap in North Korea, where they have been testing nuclear weapons underground. The rocks become many times more permeable along lines of weakness. The name Tired Mountain Syndrome was popularised by a paper in 2001 by Vitaly V. Adushkin and William Leith on Soviet underground nuclear explosions. Well, I say ‘popularised’, but I hadn’t heard of it until last week.

Syndromes have escaped from the medical world where they have thriven since the 16th century as the name for a group of signs that are concurrent (‘running together’), as the Greek origin suggests: syn ‘together’ and drom- ‘run’, as in hippodrome (‘horse run’) or palindrome (‘a word that runs back again’). A nice new syndrome can embed one’s name in the language. The psychiatrist Nils Bejerot missed his chance when he gave the name Stockholm syndrome in 1973 to the emotional ties that can develop between a captive and his captors. John Langdon Down, who died in 1896, did not have his name attached to Down’s syndrome until 1961, when the Lancet declared: ‘Our contributors prefer Down’s syndrome to mongolism because they believe that the term ‘mongolism’ has misleading racial connotations and is hurtful to many parents.’ Dr Down had been investigating ‘the possibility of making a classification of the feeble-minded, by arranging them around various ethnic standards’ and a ‘large number of congenital idiots are typical Mongols’. Of course Down knew nothing of genetics; race was the best analogy he could think of.

Syndromes named after places are being mixed up with those named after people in a 21st-century movement to abolish the possessive form of eponyms, on grounds of simplification. People now say Down syndrome instead of Down’s syndrome. So my own post-exertion chair-flopping behaviour may perhaps become known as Wordsworth syndrome.


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