In an article entitled “A new symbol for epilepsy in Chinese", Mind Hacks asserts:
The Chinese character for epilepsy has been changed to avoid the inaccuracies and stigma associated with the previous label which suggested links to madness and, more unusually, animals.
The new name, which looks like this 腦癇症 just makes reference to the brain although the story of how the original name got its meaning is quite fascinating in itself.
In the title and these first two short (sentence-long) paragraphs, in referencing epilepsy, the article refers to "a new symbol", "The Chinese character", "the previous label", "the new name", and "the original name". It almost seems as though the author were studiously avoiding referring to the Chinese term for epilepsy as a "word", which indeed it is. But this is a problem with Chinese language studies in general, in which there is an overemphasis on the characters and relatively little attention paid to words. Most egregious of all, referring to the trisyllabic word nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("brain epilepsy") as a "Chinese character" is dead wrong, since three characters are used to write it, and calling it "a new symbol" is equally wrong on the same account, plus it is exoticizing and patronizing to boot. 腦癇症 is not a symbol, nor is any of the three characters of which it consists new. What is new is the bringing together of the three constituent morphemes in this particular order: brain-epilepsy-disease.
The Mind Hacks article continues with a portion of the announcement of the change from the medical journal Epilepsia:
Apart from the physical suffering and psychological stress associated with epilepsy, persons with epilepsy suffer from inequalities as a result of the old Chinese name for epilepsy 癲癇症. Epilepsy has long been so described in ancient Chinese writing. The disease was mentioned in one of the oldest medicine textbooks in China, which was firstly published more than 2,000 years ago as “Huang Di Nei Jing” 黃帝內經. This clearly described epileptic semiology under two terms: dianji 癲疾 and xian 癇. Not surprisingly then the two were eventually joined together as dianxian 癲癇. Unfortunately after many years, the meaning of the prefix word dian 癲 became corrupted and associated with madness. Furthermore, the Chinese name became transformed to have proximity to animals. Subsequent names described the disease as the bizarre movements of goats 羊癲癇 or pigs 猪婆风. The names of animals suggested links to animals and the word dian 癲 carried the strong implication of psychiatric illnesses.
Glossary of Chinese terms:
nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("brain epilepsy")
diānxiánzhèng 癲癇症 ("epilepsy")
Huángdì nèijīng 黃帝內經 (Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic)
diānjí 癲疾 ("epilepsy")
xián 癇 ("epilepsy")
diānxián 癲癇 ("epilepsy")
yángdiānxián 羊癲癇 ("sheep epilepsy")
zhūpófēng 猪婆风 ("pig epilepsy")
zhèng 症 ("disease")
fēng 風 ("wind") fēng 瘋 ("craziness; insanity; wildness; madness")
The Mind Hacks article concludes:
If you’re wondering where the bit about the ‘bizarre movements of goats’ came [sic] I suspect it’s from a type of fainting goat that looks like it has seizures and falls over. You can see them ‘in action’ in this YouTube video.
However, the link is mistaken as the goats do not have seizures. The effect is caused by their muscles locking up, independently of their brain, by a condition called myotonia congenita.
The announcement in Epilepsia mentions that from 2008 an effort was made to promote the new term nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("epilepsy in the brain"), but it didn't catch on until the Chairman of the Hospital Authority of Hong Kong declared that it would thenceforth become the standard name for epilepsy in hospitals under its governance.
The new name does support a less stigmatizing attitude toward epilepsy, since it removes the connection with mental illness and animal behavior of the earlier words that were applied to the malady. But it must be pointed out that, as of 2011, the new word became official only in Hong Kong, not in the whole of China. And, to reiterate, nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("brain epilepsy") is not a "symbol" or a "character"; it is a "word", "term", or "name".
[A tip of the hat to Ben Zimmer]