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October 24th, 2007

Disease As Identity

While browsing the SLOG blog the other day, I came across this striking history of the name of syphilis

The name "syphilis" was coined by the Italian physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro in his epic noted poem, written in Latin, entitled Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (Latin for "Syphilis or The French Disease") in 1530. The protagonist of the poem is a shepherd named Syphilus (perhaps a variant spelling of Sipylus, a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses). Syphilus is presented as the first man to contract the disease, sent by the god Apollo as punishment for the defiance that Syphilus and his followers had showed him. By the addition of the suffix -is to the root of Syphilus, Fracastoro derived a new name for the disease, which he also used in his medical text De Contagionibus ("On Contagious Diseases").

Until that time, as Fracastoro notes, syphilis had been called the "French disease" in Italy and Germany, and the "Italian disease" in France. In addition, the Dutch called it the "Spanish disease," the Russians called it the "Polish disease," the Turks called it the "Christian disease" or "Frank disease" (frengi) and the Tahitians called it the "British disease." It was called "Great pox" in the 16th century to distinguish it from smallpox. In its early stages, the Great pox produced a rash similar to smallpox (also known as variola). However, the name is misleading, as smallpox was a far more deadly disease. The terms "lues" and "Cupid’s Disease" have also been used to refer to syphilis. In Scotland, Syphilis was referred to as the Grandgore. Because of the outbreak in the French army, it was first called morbus gallicus, or the French disease. It was also called The Black Lion.

The French Disease.  The Spanish Disease.  The Italian Disease.  The British Disease.  The Polish Disease.  The Christian Disease.  Sound familiar?  Try this: AIDS is The Gay Disease.  Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that one by now. "The poor homosexuals", said Pat Buchannan back in 1983, "they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution."  "Homosexuals", said Pat Robertson on his 700 Club, "want to come into churches and disrupt church services and throw blood all around and try to give people AIDS and spit in the face of ministers."

Disease is always caused by the people we hate.  It always wears their face.

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