An irregular rummage through the world of words. (Or, should I know what that means?)
In the resolution-crazy spirit of an optimistic New Year’s Eve, I have decided to begin this week, (and as I write, although perhaps not as you read, it is a Monday morning), with a humdinger of a word. In so doing I hope to inspire myself to continue in the same, high-brow, intellectual vein until at least Wednesday.
Iatrogenic is, as it sounds, a scientific word; more specifically, a medical word. In common with many medical terms it comes to us from those most generous of lexical benefactors, the Greeks. The definition (from my trusty Chambers) reads: “(of a disease or symptoms) induced in a patient by the treatment or comments of a physician”. So far, so unclear.
Breaking the word down then to its constituent parts we have -iatros, a physician and -genes, born. The –iatros bit suddenly makes more sense in its adjectival role, -iatric, where it relates to care or treatment within a particular medical speciality; I give you paediatric and psychiatric as illustrations. When stitched together with –genes we therefore end up with ‘born of a physician’. No. It didn’t make much sense to me either.
To solve this most challenging of vocabular conundrums I returned to the source of my discovery: a brilliant essay in this weekend’s Guardian Review by Will Self. In short, his essay describes how he is dealing intellectually with treatment for a blood disease. It discusses the use of metaphors surrounding illness and death, drawing on Susan Sontag’s own essay “Illness as Metaphor”. I won’t attempt to explain what Mr Self is suggesting; to be honest, I’m not sure I fully understand. (Will Self is, in my opinion, a master of language and there are enough new words in any of his essays or stories to keep this lexicon in business for as long as I can keep it going. But I do have to work to uncover his meaning.)
Suffice to say that he suggests science itself perpetuates the use of metaphors when dealing with death and illness. To quote directly from his essay, “As fast as we could eliminate the metaphors – our science helped them to proliferate. Metaphors were the iatrogenic disease of our era.”
And now the dictionary definition makes sense. It always comes down to context.
I doubt that I will be casually throwing this word into anything on a regular basis, but if I ever have a doctor in a story who forgets to explain things in terms his terrified patient can understand, or a surgeon who is rather too full of his own verbosity, it might come in useful.
Let me know if you’ve had occasion to make use of iatrogenic in your writing. I’ll be terribly impressed.
© flyingscribbler 2011