The unbearable inadequacy of language

James Thurber once lamented the existence of those things, actions, expressions, situations, etc, which exist but have not yet been named—for example, to try and avoid someone in the street by stepping to one side. Your adversary mirrors your movements and together you shuffle from side to side in a bizarre little dance, both desperately trying to get past the other. Eventually you extricate yourselves with an embarrassed smile and go on your way. Recognise the situation? There’s no word for it.

Medicine is particularly affected by this insufficiency of nomenclature, so I’ve made a few suggestions of how these lost meanings could be usefully married to Irish place names, which otherwise do nothing but loaf around on signposts scratching themselves.

Moy (noun): a small papilloma which the owner regularly plays with. “Worried by the news of his mother in law’s hernia, Maguire absently played with his moy.”

Nobber (n): the irresistible desire to incise an abscess. “The cyst was swollen and pointing and he felt a nobber coming on.”

Leitrim (n): an E. Coli UTI which is sensitive to trimethoprim. By common usage this term has expanded to refer to all extremely rare medical events—for example, an objective medicolegal report, a dentist who is actually available for emergencies.

Nenagh (n): an unconsummated nobber—that is, when no pus comes shooting out, no matter how much you hack and hack and hack. A disappointing feeling.

Effin (n): a patient who appears at the surgery door even before your finger has touched the buzzer. “Only 11 00 on Monday morning, and he’d already had three effins.”

Lislea (verb): the skill by which complimentary biros disappear so quickly. One theory is that they slip through a worm hole in space and end up on the planet Bartowel, where they have developed a sophisticated civilisation, and may soon invade earth. Consequently, the theory runs, all biros should be treated with kindness (remember the whales in Star Trek IV?).

Killough (v): to cough vigorously outside the surgery door, to let the doctor know you are waiting, that you are impatient, and that you are really sick. Often employed by an effin (qv). Killoughing may be associated with a self diagnosis of ME.

Hackballscross (v): to copy all the references from a review article and pretend you’ve actually looked them up yourself.

Burren (n): some other poor bugger’s work.

Ennis (v): (patient) to remove one’s sock with a snapping motion, thereby expelling a shower of stale sweat and flakes of dead skin into the doctors’ face. “‘Beware of the ennis,’ Professor Gregorivich told his awed students, ‘And always have a towel handy.’” Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

Rathvilly (v): to present a burren (qv) with deceitful sincerity. Professors and heads of department are good at this. “At the meeting in Monte Carlo burren after burren was rathvillied by a panel of distinguished speakers.”

Bunbeggy(n): a scientific paper in which there are more authors than subjects. The New England Journal specialises in these. “This week five interesting bunbeggies throw a new light on gerbils as disease vectors.” New England Journal of Medicine.

Cooley (v): to add one’s name to a research paper, despite having done none of the work. Part of the process which facilitates a rathvilly (qv) and results ultimately in a bunbeggy (qv). To cooley has recently become rather disreputable but what the hell, who’s going to know.

Hoddity (n): trite indulgent poetry in a medical journal, particularly the Lancet. “A hoddity is like a dog shaking hands; it is not done well, but one is surprised to see it done at all.” Dr Samuel Johnson.

Footnote; Douglas Adams, writer of The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, had recently published The Meaning of Liffwhich gave me the idea for this article. I wrote to him and asked permission to use this literary device, and received a dismissive letter from his agent. But when I looked into it further, Lewis Carroll and James Thurber had used it before him, so what the heck.

Footnote 2; In honour of the deceased author, a new 20th anniversary edition of The Meaning of Liff was published,  I  was asked to submit a few of the above; which is quite an honour, and also received a free copy!!!


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