I Can Name Your Disease, and Other News


On the Shelf

It’s right on the tip of my tongue …


  • I’ve always thought I would be good at naming diseases. The problem with most disease names is that they have all these scary words in them: flu, disorder, virus. That’s bad for business. If I were in charge, I’d name them after deodorants (Aqua Reef, Cool Burst, Sport) or Yankee Candles (Bahama Breeze, Vanilla Cupcake, Clean Cotton). But get this: It’s not just one person naming all the world’s diseases. It’s a whole committee of international bureaucracies, which explains why so many of our world’s most dangerous illnesses have such lousy titles. Laura Spinney writes on the winding, often fraught course through which a disease gets its name: “The Spanish flu stands as a monument to the ugly history of disease naming. The world was at war in 1918, and the belligerent nations censored their press, not wanting to damage their populations’ morale … The world came to see the disease as pulsing out from Spain, a belief that was encouraged by propagandists in other countries whom it suited to shift the blame. The naming of diseases has always been as much about politics and the human need to identify a scapegoat as it has been about accurately labeling a new threat to life. Periodic attempts have been made to remove the subjective from the process. Three United Nations agencies—the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health—play a particularly important role when it comes to infectious diseases, which don’t respect borders. WHO hosts the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which has long assigned the final name to any human disease. And in 2015, WHO came up with an updated set of guidelines for labeling infectious diseases, which account for the vast majority of threats to human life.”
  • Thought experiment: Say a kind of distant friend of yours gives you a big statue of Karl Marx. Do you accept it? Should you be happy about it? What if Karl Marx is kind of a contentious figure for you because half your nation embraced Communism not long ago, with disastrous results? Didi Kirsten Tatlow writes on a minor controversy unfolding between China and Germany: “For weeks, Chinese have been debating the meaning of a superhero-size statue of Karl Marx headed to Trier, the German town where the political philosopher was born. An attempt to spread Communist revolution back to democratic Germany? A joke? The eighteen-foot work by the sculptor Wu Weishan is a gift from the Chinese government and is to be unveiled next May as part of wider commemorations for the two hundredth anniversary of Marx’s birth … This noble-looking Marx gazing into the future expresses ‘the confidence of today’s China in its own theories, path, system and culture,’ Mr. Wu wrote in People’s Daily, the party newspaper … Historians and politicians asked whether it was appropriate to honor so uncritically a man whose ideas led to dictatorship, including in the former East Germany. In April, Trier’s City Council gave final approval to the gift but whittled down its size by more than two feet.”

  • John Foot on the history of the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s premier cycling event, once a golden opportunity for sportswriters: “The Giro is an annual ritual, a sporting event which has meshed with politics, culture, society and geography over time. It was also, especially in the early years, an event which explained Italy to the Italians. Before television and the Internet, journalists in particular used poetic license to describe ‘the race’ and the feats of its sporting heroes to their readers. This was a form of literature, largely detached from the actual details of the Giro. Crowds rarely saw much more than a glimpse of the cyclists as they pedaled past. They learned about what ‘had happened’ through the sporting, popular and quality press, but also thanks to word of mouth (and later radio). The power of cycling lay in its mystique, in the way it was narrated, framed and described by writers … We know every detail of every race today. Writers have lost their importance in covering these events. Cycling is now essentially a team sport, where every second is controlled and where there is little mystery.”
  • Maria Popova studies Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, which “was a masterpiece of uncommon punctiliousness and poetic beauty: 424 flowers from the Amherst region, which Dickinson celebrated as ‘beautiful children of spring,’ arranged with a remarkable sensitivity to scale and visual cadence across sixty-six pages in a large leather-bound album. Slim paper labels punctuate the specimens like enormous dashes inscribed with the names of the plants—sometimes colloquial, sometimes Linnaean—in Dickinson’s elegant handwriting. What emerges is an elegy for time, composed with passionate patience, emanating the same wakefulness to sensuality and morality that marks Dickinson’s poetry.”