Monday, April 6, 2009

Mixed-up metaphors

Ever since cancer showed up in my life last winter, I've been trying to read as much about the disease that I can.

So a headline in the Los Angeles Times caught my eye last week. Above an article in the left-hand column of the front page of the Business section were these words: "A cancer in the financial system."

I read deep enough into the article by Michael Hiltzik's article to determine that the piece had nothing to do with cancer. Instead, the headline was derived from a quote in the story about credit rating companies, which were described by a San Diego University professor as a "cancer that's spread throughout our law, our banking regulations, our securities regulations, our insurance regulations."

Up until a few months ago, I wouldn't have given the cancer references a second thought.

But now that I have cancer, I felt a bit peeved. I wanted to shout, "Hey, Professor! Hands off my disease!"

What is it about the word cancer that drives people come up with these loopy locutions?

I don't know much about credit-rating agencies, or the role that they play in the current financial meltdown. But I do know this: Credit-rating agencies do not cause cancer.

Probably the most famous public figure to borrow the term "cancer" to drive home a point was John Dean, the White House counsel who told the President Nixon on March 21, 1973 that the Watergate cover-up is "a cancer upon the presidency" and warned that it must be excised.

Does any other disease get this kind of treatment?

Is there anybody out there saying that the U.N. Security Council has lockjaw? That Congress has scurvy? That the International Monetary Fund has male-pattern baldness? That Alaska's Mt. Redoubt has a gastrointestinal disorder?

Of course not. But toss out the word "cancer" to make a point about problems in our economic system, and nobody blinks an eye.

As much as I would like to see the C word used solely to describe the medical condition we know as cancer, I don't have much hope that will happen.

Turns out that the guy who originally gave cancer its name started us down this slippery slope, more than 24 centuries ago.

I'm talking about Hippocrates himself. Practicing medicine in Greece in the fourth century B.C, Hippocrates didn't come up with a brand-new word to describe cancer. He borrowed the words "carcinos" and "carcinoma," which are Latin words that refer to crab.

You'd think that the ancient Greek chapter of PETA would have pounced all over Hippocrates for giving crabs a bad name. If anyone at all protested, I'm not aware of it. So the so-called Father of Medicine got to have his way.

You gotta feel sorry for the hapless crustaceans of the world. When another medical malady came along and needed to be given a name, crabs got picked on a second time.

Any tradition begun by Hippocrates may be too powerful of a force to resist. I guess I can complain all I want about people abusing the word cancer, but I doubt that it's going to have much of a difference.

Besides, I have enough on my plate as it is, without taking on a crusade against John Dean and everyone else who ever gave cancer a bad name.

But I still think that Dr. Hippocrates owes Sebastian the crab an apology.

No comments:

Post a Comment