Book review: Sick English, by Janet Byron Anderson

Specialist language sometimes spreads beyond its initial domain and becomes part of common currency. From baseball we get home run; from jousting, full tilt. And from medical science we get syndrome, viral, clinical, [X] on steroids, and others – not exactly an epidemic (that’s another one), but a significant set all the same.

For example: a detective novel I read lately (Angels Flight by Michael Connelly) contained the phrase: “the senseless and often random violence that was the city’s cancer”. Intuitively we understand the cancer metaphor, but we might never have thought about it analytically. You’ll be glad to know that someone has.

Janet Byron Anderson, a linguist and medical editor, has written a book about these words. Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language looks at how medical terminology has “migrated from hospital floors and doctors’ offices and taken up dual citizenship on the pages of newspapers, in news reports and quoted speech”.

Byron Anderson finds western media “saturated with clinical topics and medical themes, which have flooded thought with inordinate interest in health and disease”. I don’t know about “saturated”, but I take her point. She acknowledges that medical metaphors are nothing new, but provides a contemporary survey of their scope with particular reference to newspapers in English-speaking countries.

Here, for instance, is a note on the cancer metaphor:

In Sick English a social group (eg. society) is the body that cancer invades. If a trend or situation threatens any part of a group and has the potential to spread (metastasize) throughout it, the phenomenon is called a cancer, or cancerous. . . . A sense of inevitability and impending doom pervades the descriptions.

For each “Sick English” term, the author explains its clinical features and how these have been preserved (or not) in non-clinical use, fleshing out the material with etymological and other linguistic notes, and illustrating her points with several examples taken from the wild.

Sick English aims to show how the eponymous lingo is “systematic and patterned”, and to explain why some medical terms and conditions (such as hypertension and diabetes) have not made the leap into generalised use while others have. There are nice insights into the subtleties of the broadened meanings. I enjoyed the discussion of surgical strike, a metaphor

drawn from the precision with which clinical surgeries are performed: A surgical procedure targets specific organs or tissues, and the surgeon tries to avoid damaging adjacent organs or tissues.

This explains its appeal in military use – to reassure the public that only the target will be destroyed, leaving innocent people unharmed. But as Byron Anderson writes, “the military objective is unrealistic because inadvertent civilian casualties and destruction of untargeted structures do occur”. She cites a military reporters stylebook by Isaac Cubillos that says there’s “no such thing” as a surgical strike and advises journalists to avoid the term.

Janet Byron Anderson - Sick English - Medicalization in the English Language - book coverSpeaking of precision, Sick English needs better proofreading. There is anomalous capitalisation, a missing full stop and quotation marks, typos (they’ve have; Wattterson), orthographic inconstancy (2005 – 2009 vs. 2008-2009 vs. 2008–2010), and inconsistent spacing throughout, all of which was distracting. My editing fingers also twitched at the redundancy in a line saying a doctor, “and opponent of the expanded use of rosuvastatin, deplored such expansion.”

The book could also have been fact-checked more rigorously. It claims cholesterol doesn’t have an adjective like cholesterolic (calling it “hypothetical, non-occurring”), but cholesterolic has hundreds of hits in Google Scholar. And though Lucy Kellaway’s column is syndicated in the Irish Times, she is not “an Irish business reporter” – she’s British.

In spite of these minor shortcomings, Sick English is an engaging, useful and well-written monograph. It shows concisely (50 large pp., excluding references) how western society has become increasingly fixated on health and disease, and how this is reflected in the metaphors we use. It is likely to be of interest to writers and editors, especially journalists, and also to general word- and society-watchers.

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book from Ms. Byron Anderson.]

7 Responses to Book review: Sick English, by Janet Byron Anderson

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    Ah, another Connelly fan!

    “Surgical strike” is one of my favourites because of the layers of meaning and perceptual removal of responsibility when pertaining to warfare for who is the surgeon?


  2. alexmccrae1546 says:

    ‘Alimentary’, my dear Watson.

    Familiar phrases such as “gut reaction’, “gutting it out’, “a gutsy performance”, and perhaps the inspirational root of all the latter, “intestinal fortitude’, come to mind.

    “Scurvy nave” (admittedly arcane), “in stitches’ (laughing heartily), and “plagued by”… whatever, all seem to fit the category of ‘Sick English’, as well.

  3. Stan says:

    WWW: Connelly gives good police procedural. I’ve been sporadically catching up on his back catalogue.
    Who is the surgeon? It must be someone reassuringly professional and compassionate…

    Alex: The gut phrases are anatomical metaphors, but not Sick English as described in the book, I think. Curiously enough, scurvy the disease got its name from scurvy the adjective, which predates it.

  4. Licia says:

    Very interesting. Does the author quote I. Meyer and K. Mackintosh, “When terms move into our everyday lives: An overview of de-terminologization” (2000)? I find de-terminologization a very useful concept, which describes the process by which “a lexical item that was once confined to a fixed meaning within a specialized domain is taken up in general language”, where it is used to identify much broader concepts. Information technology and medicine provide quite a few examples of de-terminologization (virtual, multitasking, stand-alone, bandwidth, anorexic and the verb flatline are some of the examples discussed by the authors).

  5. Stan says:

    Licia: That sounds like a very interesting paper – thanks for bringing it to my attention. I don’t think it’s mentioned in Sick English (and it doesn’t appear in the references), but I’m sure the author will seek it out given how apt it is to the discussion.

    I wonder if other words have been coined for the same purpose; de-terminologization, though transparent enough in context, relies heavily on preserving that hyphen and being pronounced very carefully.

  6. idiomatico says:

    This book must be useful because sometimes the terminology is very confusing.

  7. […] Book review: Sick English, by Janet Byron Anderson […]

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