The Last Word on Words

September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Last Word: on words

13 September, 2013 Dr Andrew Gunn

Two thousand five hundred years ago — before being killed by a falling turtle — Aeschylus said that words are the physicians of the diseased mind. I reckon words are just weird.

If I concentrate hard enough on any written word it soon appears misspelt and then dissolves into unrecognisable symbols. Jamais vu — when familiar things seem unknown — is more or less the opposite of deja vu. It’s speculated that chronic jamais vu could underlie Capgras syndrome, where schizophrenic patients think a familiar person has been replaced by an imposter.

It’s kind of like knowing someone both before and after they enter politics.

One study found that writing the word ‘door’ 30 times in 60 seconds is enough to make most people doubt that the word ‘door’ is real. But don’t try it at home unless you like climbing through windows.

The ambiguity of English words has its pros and cons. I know a GP who upset a young American student with a foot injury. He innocently asked her to slip off her thong.

Puns do add interest to consultations. Chair-breakingly-obese patients always report they’re trying to lose weight. This permits the response. “Yes, I know you’re trying …”, while a thought bubble continues, “… very trying.”

English does, however, lack certain useful words. For instance, the Japanese word arigata-meiwaku is said to mean an act done for you which you futilely try to stop, and which as expected causes trouble, but nonetheless you feel obliged to express gratitude for it.

If only English had more words like this. For instance, when a patient reports that the dog ate their Oxycontin, we need a word that means you think someone’s lying, and they know you think that, but they hope you can’t be buggered making a scene about it.

Or maybe we already have that word: electioneering.

Tony Abbott will, I expect, be Prime Minister when this article is published. I’m no fan but he’s entitled to occasionally mangle words. Ignorance is not always bliss but if someone was “the suppository of all wisdom”, I’d stick to being stupid.

Names are another problem area.

I have a friend who thinks that, before naming a child, couples should have to clear it with a fat, fierce matron seated behind a desk. If a particularly dipstick name is suggested, couples are slapped, yelled at, and sent to the back of the queue to try again. Melena and Candida might narrowly pass but kids would be protected from monikers such as Mafia No Fear, Anal or -er (I’m told it’s pronounced ‘dasher’  not ‘hyphener’).

Names can be cruel. I once overheard an elderly man complaining that he’d been a polling official at hundreds of elections but nobody called him Bob the vote tucker; and he’d trucked thousands of boats all over the country but nobody called him Bob the boat trucker. He then fell silent and stared glumly into his beer before intoning, “… but a fleeting moment of passion … just ONE goat …”

The internet created a new type of name trouble. An early, well-known instance was the island’s and the land’s fight for possession of In fact, this article was prompted by my disappointment on following a slightly intriguing link to

Other examples include (Powergen, an Italian electric company), (not what you’d think), (Les Bocages, a tree surgeon), the missing apostrophe in and the physicians for the diseased mind (or not) at

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