A long time ago in a place far, far away I was asked to give an after-dinner talk. This is not one of my strong points, but I agreed partly because I had an amusing idea I wanted to share. Some while earlier I had come across a list of strange words with strange meanings. I decided that for this occasion I would prepare a somewhat scholarly discussion of some health care issues built around these words. For this blog I wanted to share a copy of this talk, but at first I could not find a copy of the original. I knew it was somewhere in my old files, but that is almost like a librarian saying, “Yes, Dr. Pless, that book is in this library, but we have no idea where it is”. I kept looking and several weeks later I found the file. This blog is a précis of that talk that I gave when I was invited to be the 1988 Felton Bequests’ Visiting Professor at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.
The Bequest was the gift of Alfred Felton, an entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist who died in 1904. Far more important than the Visiting Professorship was the part of the bequest that became a huge donation to the National Gallery of Victoria. At the time, it was thought to be the largest such gift to an Art Gallery. Another part of Felton’s Will provided funds for the well-being of women and children.
One person’s bequest lay behind this trip. I was in Melbourne as a recipient of a Felton Bequest Visiting Professorship. Wonderful as this was, far more important was the huge donation he made to the National Gallery of Victoria. It was one of the largest gifts internationally. Notably, Felton donated the remainder of his fortune at helping women and children.
I introduced my topic by explaining that I loved writing and longed to move beyond boring scientific prose. I yearned to use imaginative “adjectives and adverbs that will carry my prose on the wings of a great eagle, soaring across the minds of men and women…”. (That quote was deliberately over the top; a self-parody). But, I added, although I wanted to write non-medical stuff I lacked the opportunity, confidence, and skill to do so.
Instead, I became a nitpicking word guardian (before being anointed as an editor and doing so officially). Some written words I disapproved of included hopefully, vast majority, however, when which (when it should be that). In speech I railed against ‘so, like, and you know’. Instead of using these wrong words and clichés, I began searching for new or infrequently used words, even those that were arcane or archaic. (Yes, I do know the difference!). Then I became a spelling fetishist, favouring Canadian spellings to the U-deprived American versions.
And, finally, I became a word conservationist. I tried to recycle old words that appear useless, even in their original language. I thought they could serve as short-hand for complex ideas that might otherwise end up being long-winded – always the enemy of good writing. It was some of these words I wanted to share with this captive after-dinner audience.
I told my fellow-diners that I discovered the words in the Medical Post — my main source of medical guidance (and gossip). They were in a letter written by the Information Officer to the Australian High Commission in Canada. The Commissioner began his letter by commenting on bad puns, e.g., Hundred…. fear of old Germans. He went on to describe the list of strange words he that had appeared in a contest published in the BBC’s ‘The Listener’. I found them delightful and wanted to add them to my store of old words I was assembling for reuse. As an example, I reminded my audience — those who were still awake and not too soused — how essential ‘eh’ is to the Canadian language. (“You understand what I mean, don’t you, eh?)
The first of the words was Tjujigiri, which means [testing a new Japanese sword on an innocent passerby.’ As it was not particularly useful in this context, I proposed we recycle it to refer to the temptation of trainee physicians to improve certain skills on children who were innocent passersby. An example might be doing a lumbar puncture on a child with otitis media. Another might be ordering many lab tests ‘just in case’ even if it was certain the results would not change how the patient would be treated. I suggested we refer to such actions as Tjujigiri.
Anaranjear is said to be a Spanish word that means ‘to kill a cock by throwing oranges at it.’ I suggested we put this useless word to work to describe the foolish debate about who does what in the care of sick children. I wanted pediatricians to leave primary care to family doctors or nurse practitioners and focus only on serving as consultants. When (not if) the debate arose again we could say, here we are back to doing anaranjear … or words to that effect.
Mallemaroking is an Old English word to describe ‘carousing by seamen in ice-bound ships.’ Fortunately, nowadays, seamen are not too often ice-bound and in any case prefer singing sea shanties. The word could be used to refer to the activities of paediatricians who practise the ‘new morbidity’. This includes such problems as adolescent health, behavioural problems, learning disorders, and preventing injuries. These were issues that the old morbidity largely ignored largely because they tend to be difficult. Just because we cannot do some things as well as we do others is no reason for ignoring those things. If we do, that amounts to little more than mallemaroking.
One of my favourite useless old word is Rhapanizo which, we are told, is ‘Ancient Greek for thrusting a radish into the fundament as a punishment for adulterers.’ Useful as this might be, I thought it might serve better as shorthand for several complicated struggles in nursing. One such is the desire of nursing to enhance its status by encouraging more students to get a Master’s degree even if might compromise seeing nursing as a vocation. Another struggle is deciding how much nurses become independent health care providers. Rhapanizo could serve as a collective term for these issues.
Dentilegus is thought to derive from the Latin for ‘one who picks up his teeth after they have been knocked out.’ In paediatrics the knocking out of teeth may be a metaphor for having to reduce child health services if huge amounts are spent on high tech procedures. Probably the most vulnerable of the deprived services would be funding for prevention. Hence, the paradox: the high tech may be a liver transplant need to replace one unsalvageable after a preventable car crash. If we were to practise dentilegus we would choose to keep our own teeth rather than paying for expensive dentures.
To conclude my talk on a high note I called attention the growing number of elderly whose health needs might rob children of the resources they require. Ideally, both should be cared for properly. If we spent less on defence, Olympics, subsidies to ailing industries, marketing harmful products, and eliminated tax loopholes for the super wealthy, we could easily do so. For discussions about this, I proposed using the word Taghairm. It is, supposedly, Scottish for ‘inspiration sought by lying in a bullock’s hide behind a waterfall.’ It could apply to the mental processes of politicians when they contemplate reducing funding health care. When you next meet your inept Health Minister you could say “You know it seems you are engaging in taghairm rather than coming to grips with this problem. Get out from behind the waterfall; climb out of the bullock’s hide; make the tough decisions.’’
By this time, most of my audience, having consumed too much wine, whisky, or both, were incapable of taking offense if they were Ministers. They had nodded off. Your bonus for staying awake and reading through this long blog, dear reader, is the word ‘ultracrepidarianism’. I too did not know that it meant ‘the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge or competence’. That may well be the sin I have committed by writing this.