What’s in a name? The World Health Organisation releases guidelines for the naming of diseases


This week, the WHO (World Health Organisation) released guidelines for naming diseases, aiming to avoid the insults and enduring stigma sometimes inadvertently caused.

Names can be as infectious as any disease. The Ebola virus takes its name from the Ebola River in Congo, an area now blighted with the association. ‘Gay-related immune deficiency’, an early name for AIDS, helped perpetuate homophobic slurs surrounding the condition that persist to this day.

Is the answer, as the WHO suggests, to encourage more neutral terms such as ‘severe respiratory disease’ or ‘novel neurologic syndrome’? The new guidelines have been criticised by health professionals for creating names which are unmemorable and indistinguishable to the public.

MB’s Senior Copywriter Philip Browning cautions against naming guidance that is too rigid: “the policing of names (of diseases, or indeed anything) shuts down creativity – and underestimates how robust and unpredictable humans can be. Both Quaker and Queer were names inflicted on non-conforming groups of people, with the intention of humiliation and hurt. Yet both insults were embraced by the ‘victims’, transforming them into symbols of strength and solidarity. Anyway, doesn’t ‘The King’s Evil’ have more poetry and dread than Mycobacterial lyphadenitis?”

A fine balance is required. Names should be chosen with consideration of the stigma they might cause to a location or ethnicity. But no matter how neutral and descriptive a name may be, human ingenuity and the tabloid press ensure that evocative alternatives will prevail in the public’s imagination.

If you discovered a disease, what would you use as naming inspiration? A place? A sibling? Or a particularly virulent young music artist? Please tweet us using #MWW with any suggestions or thoughts.

This originally appeared in Moving World Wednesday 20150513 

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