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Wordsleuth (2004, vol. 37, 2): Here’s to Your Health!

Katherine Barber
(Terminology Update, Volume 37, Number 2, 2004, page 41)

Having now completed the second edition of The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we can sit back and see what fields of activity seem to be the most productive of new words. Without a doubt, health tops the list.

Unfortunately, in the last year we have become all too familiar with words for new diseases that have seemingly cropped up out of nowhere: SARS (caused by a coronavirus) and the bird flu. Other viruses have been around for a while but have only impinged on our consciousness more recently: Coxsackie (named after a place in New York state), Norwalk (named after a place in Ohio), Ebola (named after a river in Congo), and West Nile. The prevention of West Nile disease also acquainted us with the term adulticide and with larvicide used as a verb.

We have also seen an epidemic of hallway medicine, a term which seems to have been invented in Manitoba to designate a phenomenon that is all too common elsewhere as well: the practice of treating hospital patients on beds in hallways because of a shortage of hospital rooms. Hospital overcrowding also familiarized us with the use of redirect as a noun (used, as far as we can tell, only in Canada) designating a situation in a hospital emergency department where ambulances with all but critically ill patients are redirected to another hospital.

Many people have become disillusioned with conventional medicine and have turned to alternative therapies such as Feldenkrais and Hellerwork (both invented, surprisingly, by engineers) and qigong (meaning literally "breath work" in Chinese). But herbal remedies have been perhaps the most popular, posing many difficulties for the poor lexicographer. This was brought home to us when we hit the entry for kava, a Polynesian shrub also known as kava kava. We had an article that we had clipped from the Globe and Mail in about 1999, claiming that kava kava was the next hot herbal remedy and a wonder drug promoting relaxation. We always have to be careful with our definitions for herbal remedies, because we don’t want people self-medicating based on claims that are in the dictionary. But on the other hand, our definitions do need to tell people what these herbal remedies are supposed to do. We make much use in our definitions of words like "believed to" or "purported to." We have a Canadian Pharmaceutical Association Herbal Remedies book that we check in, and sure enough they said kava kava was good for relaxation. But an instinct for double-checking took us to the Web, where we discovered that said wonder drug, acclaimed a mere three years before, was banned in Europe and Canada in 2001 because people were dying after taking it. Well, I guess you can’t be more relaxed than that!

Ma huang or ephedra achieved a similar notoriety with the death of a few celebrity athletes.

But all is not negative on the health front: many are the short-sighted who have had cause to bless the invention of LASIK (short—thankfully—for laser in situ keratomileusis) surgery to cure myopia. Many are those afflicted by prostate cancer who have blessed the invention of brachytherapy (from "brachy-" meaning "short"), in which small radioactive implants are inserted directly into the cancerous tissue and surgery is avoided.

And thank goodness the medical community have finally agreed on the virtues of drinking red wine, giving us not only the word resveratrol (invented by Cornell University scientists in 1991) to designate the cholesterol-busting substance red wine contains, but also an excuse to quaff a nice Burgundy with our dinner. And while you’re quaffing, you might want to impress your dinner companions with a mouthful of a new word that I offer here as a special bonus for Terminology Update readers: eicosapentaenoic acid. Pronounced approximately eye-cossa-penta-ee-NO-ik, it’s a kind of polyunsaturated fatty acid found in fish oils. But make sure you haven’t consumed too much of the resveratrol before you attempt to say it!