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Bye bye, palm reading! Welcome, gene reading! DNA and other clinical metaphors

© PhotodiscToday’s guest post comes from Janet Byron Anderson. Dr. Anderson is a medical editor and runs Medical Linguistics Consulting. Her book Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language is available at


If you’re of a certain cast of mind and want to know your prospects for life, death, and happiness you can open your hand and a palm reader would tell you. “Hmm, the girl you’re dating will break your heart because you’re a pushover”. “You’ll go bald next year”. Often the more you hear, the more your palm sweats.

Now you can skip all that. A bit of sweat gleaned from your palm can be whisked to a laboratory, where cells in the sweat would undergo gene reading. You would have your DNA sequenced, and from the findings you may infer what experiences you’re likely to have in the future.

DNA is in everyone’s vocabulary now, as Michael Rundell reminded us in his recent intriguing post. DNA is as common an abbreviation as GDP, and just as technical. But whereas most speakers know that GDP stands for gross domestic product, it’s doubtful that a typical speaker knows what DNA stands for. And if you gave them its full name, deoxyribonucleic acid, they might have a difficult time disgorging this 10-syllable monstrosity.

As Michael pointed out, if you say that a particular quality is in someone’s DNA (or in their genes), you mean that this quality defines that person and isn’t likely to change. In his memoir My Nine Lives (an intriguing feline metaphor), the classical pianist Leon Fleisher reflected that if you’re a budding soloist you should tackle difficult repertoire early in your career, so that the difficulty would penetrate your fingers and “your DNA” (Fleisher 2010). Corporations, which nowadays view themselves as human, have also discovered that they’re genetically endowed. A U.S. historian, opposed to what he viewed as an authoritarian management style in the world’s largest retailer, insisted that a “patriarchal ethos was written into the Wal-Mart DNA” (Lichtenstein 2011).

DNA and genes belong to a large set of technical terms which have migrated from the specialized field of biomedicine into our homes – and once there, they have turned metaphorical. Other expressions include comatose (e.g. “comatose careers”), autistic (e.g. “autistic architecture”), cancer (e.g. “the cancer of corruption”), syndrome (e.g. “bigger towel syndrome”), and many more. I researched these metaphors in news reports from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. The results are summarized in my book Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language. I use the term “Sick English” to denote the entire set of new clinical metaphors that began to proliferate in the last century.

The term medicalization reflects the sociological underpinning of this linguistic trend. It refers to the tendency of Westerners to speak of uncomfortable or embarrassing experiences (e.g. menstruation, male pattern baldness) in the language of pathology, even in the absence of clearly diagnosed disease. A medicalized mentality often drives people to seek medical treatment in order to deal with normal feelings and sensations of discomfort. Most observers of this trend deplore medicalization, believing that it strips people of inner strength and autonomy, and makes them overly dependent on the medical establishment and the drug industry.

Realizing how faithfully language reflects society and its dominant modes of thinking, I decided to explore the linguistic aspects of medicalization.

Clinical metaphors aren’t new. Once they’ve become naturalized in everyday language, speakers no longer recognize them as medical terms: consider plethora or jaundiced, for example. For the most part the newer metaphors seem innocuous. Occasionally, though, their use can backfire. In one example, a French minister described the political stance of the British government as “autistic”, causing some vexation. If real people, many of whom we know, are suffering from a condition that’s prevalent in our age (e.g. autism, cancer, dyslexia), metaphorical use of the clinical terms has the potential to cause offence. Nevertheless we’re usually able to enjoy hearing and even using most of the new metaphors because their dark underbelly, namely the medicalization of Western society, is obscured.

Dr. Janet Byron Anderson, Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language, 2012.
Leon Fleisher, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music, New York: Doubleday, 2010.
Nelson Lichtenstein, “Wal-Mart’s authoritarian culture”, The New York Times, 22 June 2011.

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Janet Byron Anderson

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