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Misogyny, in other words

by Dr Justin Coleman (AMWA President)

I am quite fond of misogyny. Misogyny and syphilis. You never quite know whether to write ‘y’ or ‘i’, and these spelling quirks give me an odd thrill. Just a pity neither is curable with amitriptyline.

When the Macquarie Dictionary redefined the word ‘misogyny’ the week after PM Gillard threw it at Mr Abbott, I, for one, was cheering. Not for her aim, necessarily, but it’s not often a word definition hits the front page (let alone an opposition leader).

Labor PMs traditionally have a higher dictionary impact factor than their Liberal counterparts. Think of Whitlam’s cur, Keating’s soufflé and recalcitrants, and Rudd’s…well, at least he tried with programmatic specificity. In comparison, the Libs are all tip and no iceberg.

Word evolution is my thing. I studied schoolboy Latin mainly to converse with Catholic priests and extraordinarily old Italians. But then I chose one of the few careers—medicine—where it actually comes in handy. Never more so than when fishing foreign bodies out of young Harry Potter fans’ ears while chanting expelliarmus! Seems even a dead word can be redefined; 30 years ago expelliarmus meant ‘Get the hell out of my Latin class, Coleman’.

Medical words evolve, too. The only thing lost when rhonchi became wheezes and crepitations crackles, was our ability to obfuscate. Erythema is red and borborygmi are bowel sounds. Or is it borborigmy? Ooh, I’m starting to tingle.

Oddly enough, I also studied Ancient Greek. I swear by Apollo, I could have founded a Dead Physicians’ Society. The Greeks gave us the erythros in red and the gyny in misogyny, but it was the misogynists themselves who gave us syphilis, the buggers.

In fact, look up any medical dictionary and you’d be forgiven for concluding that every disease began in Athens. But of course, communicable diseases existed long before the words syfilis, gonorrhoia and khlamydia allowed them to be named. Previously, physicians could only break the news to patients by grunting confusingly and making obscene hand gestures: hence, all afflictions were grouped together under ‘incommunicable diseases’.

I come from a long line of etymologists. I almost wrote entomologists, which would have been a rookie error, particularly for an etymologist. Not that I have anything against Tolkien’s talking trees.

My etymologist grandfather loved dictionaries and would slam the inadequately named Shorter Oxford on the table as soon as anyone uttered a word of more than three syllables. My mother solves cryptic crosswords to keep her mind sharper than her Sudoku-loving peers who, unsurprisingly, are all rapidly dementing. We etymologists and grammar Nazis remain cogent to the very end, although Gen Y signwriters wish we wouldn’t.

The inheritance stops with me, though. I’m sure I remember telling my son to expect my natural flair for etymology but he seems only interested in studying insects. Perhaps, to quote George Bush, I misunderestimated him.

Bushisms. Don’t you miss them? Those Republicans would give the Labor PMs a run for their money!

Follow Justin on Twitter @drjustincoleman or visit his website www.drjustincoleman.com

This blog was originally published in Medical Observer’s ‘Humerus’ column early this year.

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