A Roseola By Any Other Name

WARNING! THIS POST IS INTERACTIVE! RUN NOW, OR RESIGN YOURSELF TO PARTICIPATION! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

If you’re working in a fictional environment, I’m solidly in favor of making up your own diseases with their own names. This holds even if they’re loosely or even tightly based on real diseases. Here’s why.

The name of the disease has power over the perception of the disease.

-You can tell SO MUCH about a disease or condition by its name.

Disease names tend to be self-descriptive. Osteoporosis. Pancreatitis. Cholecystitis. Very-long-chain acyl-CoA Dehydrogenase Deficiency (VLCADD).

This is one of the reasons I’m doing the “How To Talk Doctor” series of posts. The way you name a disease can really affect how your readers think about it. This operates down to the root of the word. For example: Would you rather have rosacea or necrotizing fasciitis? The first starts with something that sounds like “rose”; the second starts with “necro-“, which means “death”. See what I mean?

You can use this to your advantage. When you’re naming your disease, use word roots that suggest the severity you’re going for. Use visceral-sounding roots like “necro-” and “sarc” (flesh) for scary diseases. Et cetera.

Here’s a fun listing of a lot of roots that you can throw together to imply exactly what you want to say. Go crazy!

Exercise #1! Pick out three or four roots from the above link, and invent a disease name. Go to the comments section and tell us about the disease: Who gets it, What happens, When do they get it, Where is the disease most likely to arise (in the world and anatomically), Why do you get it, and How does it first present? Give each other constructive feedback, but for the love of all that is bloggerly, be polite and respectful! I reserve the right to come down hard on anyone who poops in my sandbox.

-Locking onto a known disease means you’re locking yourself into playing by nature’s rules.

For example, in my current YA novel, I needed my infant character to suffer from a disease that would slowly destroy her body but wouldn’t have any effect on her brain. I thought it could be Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, because the symptoms that it creates seemed to be what I needed.

However, it’s very, VERY rare to see DMD in females, because it’s a genetic disease with an X-linked recessive transmission. I would have to go through ridiculous gymnastics of genetic justification if I wanted to make it plausible. I probably could have used it anyway and gotten away with it, but I try to have more respect for my readers than that.

So I eventually settled on giving my “muscular dystrophy” a completely made-up name. This would have worked, though I later stumbled across a real disease that actually does what I need done. This was good, because even though my setting is science fiction, it’s near-future enough that I’d like as many ties as possible to the real world. Which brings me to my next point:

You can’t win if you don’t play.

-Worldbuilding

Naming has HUGE payoff, worldbuilding-wise. You agonize over the name of your MC and the place-names of your setting; why not something like this?

The name of your disease says a LOT about the world your characters live in. The names the characters use can tell you a lot about where they live and the backgrounds of the populations they’re a part of.

If you’re working in our world, by all means, use a real disease name. Just do some research. It’ll definitely help ground the story in our reality, and give you a little more wiggle-room for any less-plausible fictional elements.

But if you’re using a fantasy or science fiction world that you’ve made up? This is a jackpot for quick world-building!

Does the rash the disease causes resemble the scaly flesh of the dragons that plague the village? Does the rash the disease causes resemble the scaly flesh of the dragons that protect the village from the constant space-pirate attacks? I’d argue that the same disease, in these two separate circumstances, would have two very different names. And the names would tell you a lot about the circumstances.

Exercise #2! Think about your current work-in-progress. What is your main setting, where most of the action in your story happens? What is most likely to make people sick in that location? What contributes to the development or progression of the illness? Now name it! Head to the comments section, and tell us about it! Give each other constructive feedback, but for the love of all that is bloggerly, be polite and respectful! I reserve the right to come down hard on anyone who poops in my sandbox.

-Character Development

Diseases often have multiple names. Which name a character uses can tell you a lot about who they are, where they were raised, and how educated they might be. This was used to grand effect in The Stand, by Stephen King. A few names for the disease that wiped out most of humanity: “the rales,” “Tube Neck,” “Captain Trips,” “the superflu,” “Project Blue,” “A-Prime.”

The name your character uses for the disease can tell you a lot about who they are.

Who would call your disease “the thrice-damned gut-rot”? How would they be different from the person who calls it “acritobacter pumago”? Would the same person call it “the jam-squirts”, as long as they were drunk and the company was less formal?

Exercise #3! Go to the comments section and tell me about a character, based on the name they use to describe Stephen King’s superflu. Now, change the name they’d use, and describe how any qualities of the same character might change based on the new information. Alternatively, give me some alternate names for the illness that you’ve developed for your own work-in-progress. Who in your world uses which name? Give each other constructive feedback, but for the love of all that is bloggerly, be polite and respectful! I reserve the right to come down hard on anyone who poops in my sandbox.

This is such an easy way to drop in a LOT of development, in very few words! Don’t let it pass you by!

I’m looking forward to reading what you post!

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Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 1:11 am  Comments (2)  
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