11 February 2009

Give me a good venereal disease any day of the week

Today at noon, as part of the Central Authors television series I help organize (official title: producer; actual role: booking agent), I attended an insightful and enjoyable talk by Heather Prescott, a colleague in the CCSU History Department, on her new book Student Bodies: the Influence of Student Health Services in American Society and Medicine. As she traced the history of student health services, developing in response to increasing diversity on U.S. college campuses, the subject of sexually transmitted diseases, not surprisingly, arose.

Then it dawned on me: what exactly was wrong with the term "venereal disease" (or even "social disease," for that matter) that demanded the uninspired, and pedestrian, name of "sexually transmitted disease." Have we, as a culture, become so dim, so poorly read, so imaginatively bankrupt, that any term not patently obvious needs replacement?

"Venereal," after all, is an adjective that derives from the Latin name of the Roman goddess of love and sex -- Venus, Veneris (stem vener-) -- and, as such, specifies that any things so described are sexually related.

When I raised this question after the talk, a young man in the CCSU bookstore (who hadn't even attended the talk) came by, apologized for interrupting, and suggested that perhaps it was because the Latin derivation was gendered -- that it somehow blamed such diseases on women.

Not a bad theory, but hardly convincing. Remember, the Roman philosopher Lucretius in his epic Epicurean poem on atomism, De Rerum Natura, invoked Venus as neither god nor woman but as the driving creative (read: sexual) force in the natural world.

Venereal = sexually transmitted - history/lore/tradition

We continue to fall ever further from the rich poetic/mythic roots of our language, and we're the poorer for it.

Also remember the name for syphilis came from a character, Syphilus, in a 16th-century neo-Latin poem by physician/poet Girolamo Fracstoro.

Before the poem, the French called it the "Italian Disease, the Italians the "French Disease, etc...."

Now THAT'S how you name a disease.

We can't leave this topic without quoting the chorus of "Social Disease," the Elton John / Bernie Taupin composition from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road :

I get bombed for breakfast every morning
I get bombed for dinner time and tea
I dress in rags, smell a lot, and have a real good time
I'm a genuine example of a social disease

But I won't count on that either....


  1. Uh, does your wife read this?!

    Seriously, thanks for the positive feedback.
    I didn't have time to go into this, but regardless of the word's origins, "venereal" became associated with immoral behavior. Physicians distinguished between "venereal" sources of infection and "innocent" ones (e.g. mother-child, toilet seats, etc).

    As to songs that mention "social diseases" -- don't forget "Gee, Officer Krupke" from "West Side Story."

  2. But I guess we shouldn't include Gershwin and Gershwin's "CLAP Your Hands" from their musical Oh Kay!