Dubious names for diseases in Chinese

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In an article entitled "‘Idiotic’ Name for Dementia Sparks China Doctors’ Protest" that appeared in today's Bloomberg News, the question of the appropriateness of the names for various diseases is raised.  The article begins:

The Chinese name diseases based on symptoms, so diabetes is known as “sugary pee,” while a dyslexic “has trouble reading.” Dementia derives from two Chinese characters meaning “insane” and “idiotic.”

tángniàobìng 糖尿病 ("sugar-urine-disease" = "diabetes")

sòngdú kùnnán 诵读困难 ("reading-difficulty / trouble" = "dyslexia")

chīdāi 痴呆 ("insane / idiotic / foolish / stupid / dumb / silly-silly / stupid / dull" = "dementia")

Since the article is relatively short and concise, I shall quote the rest of it:

Worried that many people with dementia are so self-conscious they won’t seek treatment, Chinese psychiatrists are calling for professionals and patients to adopt a new term.

“The Chinese name implies that patients are both mentally ill and severely stupid, so the stigma is doubled,” said Helen Chiu, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the lead author of an editorial in the International Psychogeriatrics journal. The eight doctors who signed the piece advocating a change are from China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Switzerland.

It isn’t an issue only in Chinese-speaking populations, because the Korean and Japanese languages rely on many Chinese characters. And many Asian medical names were adapted from those used centuries ago by Chinese practitioners who called illnesses after symptoms or causes, according to Jaung-Geng Lin, a professor of Chinese medicine at China Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan.

Notice that, of the eight doctors who signed the editorial, only one is from China.

[Hat tip Michael Rank]


  1. Matthew said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 10:31 pm

    That's strange that a doctor from Japan signed – the official name in Japan has already been changed to 認知症 (にんちしょう ninchishou), or "recognition disorder", I suppose.

    Wikipedia tells me that in 2004 the official name was changed from 痴呆 for this reason, and people seem to have adopted it fairly well. As a relatively recent immigrant I'd never even heard the old word!

  2. Vasha said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 10:36 pm

    And who exactly are these signatories expecting to take action on changing the name? In the US, I believe that the professional body of the relevant medical specialty would have the most influence: they issue a statement of standards, which may (likely) be adopted by specialiats, and then picked up by diagnostic manuals and practitioners in other fields, and then hopefully be used in publications aimed at the general public. An uncertain and lengthy matter then; but as I said, I think medical associations have a lot of influence.

    The question is what the equivalent is in the Sinosphere. The difficulty is greatly compounded by the fact that they seem to intend to influence all the countries using terminology of Chinese origin!

  3. Ethan said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 10:50 pm

    Which raises the question – are native speakers whose language uses CJK characters as blind to the root meaning of the characters making up a word as English speakers generally are to the Latin/Greek roots making up the equivalent word in English? Or are they only blind to the root meaning of the English translations of those same words :-)?

    I am reminded of an anatomy professor I knew, who insisted that med students didn't really have to memorize all the bones, muscles, and other component parts in the human body. All they had to do was describe each bit in everyday words – albeit everyday Latin words – same as the guy who named it in the first place. "that long muscle in back"= "latissimus dorsi" and so on.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 10:54 pm

    The abstract seems to assume that "dementia" is a neutral, technical English word without pejorative overtones. I am skeptical about that assumption. (I suspect there's a reason that "Alzheimer's" is often used in preference to "dementia" in AmEng conversations between laypeople and it's not because the former is more specific.)

    No doubt some government functionaries in Peking would disagree with Prof. Mair's assumption that the one co-author based in Hong Kong and the two based in Taiwan are not "from China," but I think it may be good for appearances' sake (i.e. suggesting that it's not a politicized issue) to have co-authors from pretty much all of the Han majority jurisdictions out there including Singapore (maybe Macao should feel slighted?), and it's nice to see the diversity of transliteration approaches among the five co-authors with Chinese names.

  5. Tim said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 12:05 am

    This is interesting, but is English guilt-free in this regard? Look up the etymologies of those same ailments. Dyslexia does have etymology to the effect of "bad speller"; diabetes comes from "passing" (euphemism for "weeing"); dementia is related to the less palatable "demented", or "out of one's mind".

  6. Adam Funk said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 3:23 am

    "Diabetes mellitus" literally-etymologically means something like "passing a lot of honeyed liquid". Of course it's not at all transparent to most native speakers of English.

    @J. W. Brewer: IMO, "dementia" is a neutral technical term. To the extent that it's perceived negatively, that's the fault of the hearers & to some extent society for the general misunderstanding of mental illnesses.

  7. leoboiko said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 4:11 am

    @Matthew: It's true that 認知 can mean "recognition", but in this context I'd translate it as "cognition"—as in cognitive science 認知科学 or cognitive linguistics 認知言語学。 Edict renders 認知症 as "cognitive impairment".

  8. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:38 am

    It does indeed seem to turn on the fact that Chinese technical terms are more transparent to Chinese speakers than English ones are to English speakers.

    One of the few upsides to the generally horrible Japanese writing system is that it associates the Chinese-origin morphemes used to make up things like modern scientific terms with native Japanese words of similar meaning, so the same thing occurs in Japanese, albeit somewhat less directly.

    My most recent favourite was a word I found in a medical article: "eosinophil" in Japanese is 好酸球 kousankyuu "love-acid-ball." Took me right back to my student days …

  9. flow said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 8:11 am

    @Ethan—your question hits the nail. it so happens that both 痴 and 呆 are as much household words as are their English counterparts 'stupid', 'dumb', 'absent-minded', 'numb' and so on. this by no means is necessarily so; it's probably well possible to either find chinese morphemes that have gone out of use and describe the same, or find a more neutral expression like 認知症. it should be noted that there is a tendency in English to use fairly opaque words from Greek and Latin roots for what in other languages (German sometimes so, Chinese generally so) is put into more readily understandable terms (to the layman).

    sometimes the opposite happens when fairly poetic medical terms like 'veneral disease' are changed into the more descriptive 'sexually transmitted disease'.

  10. zynik said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 9:07 am


    Dementia has been re-labelled in recent years (~5 or so?) in the Chinese language-using parts of East Asia (e.g. Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan) as 失智症 (shi1 zhi4 zheng4 – lose mental-(faculties) disease), so officially it's not really 痴呆 anymore. Hong Kong has apparently pushed for a different label, 認知障礙症, but I'm not in HK and cannot confirm.


  11. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    I'm reminded of the way that the term "mongol" for "person with Down's Syndrome", which was a perfectly normal term in my youth, has entirely properly been dropped (except as a term of abuse in the mouths of the ignorant.)

    It had the distinction of being not only gratuitously offensive but also completely wrong. I remember a paediatric textbook with pictures of (ethnic) Mongol children with Down's Syndrome, which successfully drove home the fact.

    There are a good many other standard medical terms which are well established but, when you stop to think about it, entirely wrong: two that immediately occur to me are "cataract", which is nothing like a waterfall, and "glaucoma", which doesn't make your eyes green. We don't notice because they are etymologically opaque.

    It occurs to me that even in Chinese a word compounded of several morphemes is always going to be more than the sum of its parts. I imagine that many common words at least would not immediately bring to mind the meaning of the individual morphemes.

    However, one of the things that surprised me about the Sino-Japanese layer of Japanese, especially in the formal style, is how the various morphemes are a lot less firmly bound together than in English – you get single compound words meaning "go to Shanghai" "leave hospital" "revised treatment regime" etc with considerably more freedom to make up new words on the same patterns than you have in English. I thought this was a sort of pathological side-effect of the way formal written Japanese owes so much to the Kanbun tradition of reading Classical Chinese as if it were Japanese, but I notice idly looking through modern Chinese grammars that the relatively loose binding of the components seems to be a notable feature of contemporary Chinese as well. Presumably this, as well as the greater recognisability of the components, partly explains why people are more sensitive to the etymology than you would have thought from analogy with English.

    To what extent is this induced by the Chinese writing system, which forces an analysis into morphemes regardless of how tightly bound the components are and of how far the meaning of the whole may differ from its parts? Would chīdāi seem as unfortunate if it weren't written 痴呆?

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    At least in English, mental illness and disability seem to be particularly associated with taboos and the "euphemism treadmill." Idiot, lunatic, imbecile, cretin, feeble-minded, etc etc. were all within the last century or two in respectable technical use by medical professionals and the like but have all been abandoned and are now used merely as free-floating insults by the general public. Dementia seems not to have gotten there thus far even though the transparently-related "demented" would perhaps not be used to describe someone with dementia by someone striving for a neutral/scientific tone.

    Advocacy groups (in the U.S. – I can't speak to other Anglophone countries) are currently vigorously pushing for a complete taboo against "the R-word" ("retarded" and related forms) which was in respectable scientific use until quite recently. I just saw a tragicomic thing on the internet where a rather intemperate rant (arising out of what sounded like a perfectly legitimate grievance, I should note) from a writer who was clearly a self-identified feminist and "progressive" had a grovelling and apologetic postscript indicating that it had been edited since it was first posted to remove the pejorative word "fucktard" after the writer had learned that this word was considered offensive — not because it included the F-word but because it alluded to the R-word.

  13. Howard Oakley said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

    Back in the days when most medical diagnostics were prescriptive and not based on any understanding of aetiology, the standard rule for naming a new condition was to translate its main sign or symptom into Greek or Latin, and turn that into the new name. Hence a condition in which the patient's hands turn bright blue in the cold is termed 'acrocyanosis', and a rash similar to that caused by contact with nettles is 'urticaria'.
    If that was too complex, or you wanted to immortalise a great physician, then you simply named it after them, e.g. Raynaud's Phenomenon, and the huge list of eponyms.
    These days, with so much emphasis on molecular biology, we have a terminology based largely on the putative underlying mechanism, such as hyperthyroidism (older, from 'real' medicine) or glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (modern, molecular), which then is commonly turned into a meaningless acronym e.g. G6PDHD.

  14. Bill Principe said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

    In America, we name diseases for their symptoms as well, but we use Latin or Greek. Apnea just means "without breath," Angina pectoralis means "chest pain," and of course dementia comes from the Latin demens meaning "out of your mind."

    Seems to me that the Chinese doctors aren't much different from ours.

  15. Bobbie said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

    Hysteria originally meant a medical condition particular to women and caused by disturbances of the uterus. ( from the Greek ὑστέρα hystera "uterus")

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

    There is a poetry to some English-language disease names, however. I've always particularly liked Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, for its Bluegrass feel. Or the B-Movie air of Histiocytosis X. And what more can one say after "pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism"? (Not much, if you're asthmatic.)

  17. julie lee said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    I've always been told by elderly Chinese that Western medicine is good for some specialties and Chinese medicine good for others. For example, if you want to have an operation for acute appendicitis, the best is Western surgery, but I've heard, for instance, that Chinese medicine is better for the specialty called, in Chinese, dieda shang 跌打傷 “injuries from falls and beatings" (like a cracked skull). Once, as a teenager, I suffered a tiny crack in my ankle from a collision with another player in a netball game (the English cousin of basketball). The Western doctor said I'd have to stay in bed several months. So a Chinese "falls and beating doctor" was called in. He had me up and about in one month. A comparable Western doctor would be called an "orthopedic surgeon". The word "orthopedic" is so much more abstract-sounding than "falls and beatings doctor". Chinese is always so concrete and colorful (or earthy) because the words are not derived from some other language like Greek or Latin. But, as @Ethan, @David Eddyshaw, and others have commented, if you trace seemingly abstract English words to their Greek, Latin, or other roots, the words are just as concrete or colorful. (By the way, I'm told the traditional Chinese "falls and beatings doctor" is peerless in setting bones. I heard of so many people who complain that their orthopedic surgeon didn't set their broken bone properly, and had to go back again and again. They might try a Chinese f-and-b doctor.)

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    "Orthopaedics" is in fact yet another thoroughly entrenched medical misnomer. Not much of orthopaedics involves child-straightening nowadays (though that's still a part of it.)

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

    European languages vary quite a bit in this dimension of how transparent word structure is, come to think of it (French is way out on the opaque end.). I'm not at all well up on German medical terminology, but what little I know suggests it's at least more perspicuous to lay people than English or French. Are there any instances of German public opinion driving replacement of technical terms which come over as rude (or just silly)?

  20. leoboiko said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:28 pm

    Speaking of Germanic, I bet the delightful Icelandic habit of making agglutinative calques for foreign words must have produced some nice (?) transparent disease names…

  21. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

    Hardly on topic, but my son was delighted just the other day to discover that the Icelandic word for "arm" is "handleggur." An instance of transparent structure, anyhow.

  22. leoboiko said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    @David Though they have armur too, but yes :) There's a lot like that, such as orðabók = wordbook = dictionary, or the Alþingi = all-assembly = the Parliament. But my favourite so far has to be Internet-famous Leðurblökumaðurinn.

  23. Simon P said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 3:46 am

    I'm sad that the Swedish name for Batman nowadays seems to be "Batman". When I was a kid he was called "Läderlappen", "the leather patch". Maybe influenced by Icelandic?

  24. V said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 10:18 am

    In what sense you find that tragicomic?

  25. V said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    J.W. Brewer: what do you mean when you say you find that tragicomic? DO you find it notable that the etymology of "fucktard" was opaque to the author?

  26. Josh said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

    As a native-speaker of English who lived in Chinese-speaking places for my late teens and after, I find Chinese more transparent not just on medical issues but also in a number of other fields, epecially philosophy. I only understood (or could remember) what "epistemology" 知识学 "metaphysics" 形而上学 or "ontology" 本体论 meant when I had learnt them in Chinese. English highbrow terminology is very prone to hiding behind foreign etymology, and Chinese can't/doesn't do that.

  27. Lugubert said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 8:59 am

    @Simon P: It is true that ”läderlappen” literally means ”the leather patch”, but ”läderlapp” used to be a normal word for a bat. More common in my youth was ”fladdermus”, ”flapping mouse”. You can also compare the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, in Swedish still Läderlappen.

  28. Tyson Burghardt said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 11:00 am

    An Article (free access link) in March's Epilepsia talks about efforts to change the Korean term for epilepsy, which also had derived from the Chinese and involved implications of madness. The editorial from that issue (non-free) discusses the stigma attached to various languages' terms for the same disease.

  29. Jeff W said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

    I find Chinese more transparent not just on medical issues but also in a number of other fields, especially philosophy.

    I have a native-speaking Chinese friend, a teacher of English, who once insisted that there was simply no word in a Chinese dictionary that he would not have at least some idea of the meaning of from just the word itself. (He might have been exaggerating to make a point about how much more transparent Chinese is than English and he’s given to outlandish comments at times but he said it as if it were literally true.) That he could even make such a claim, true or not, said something to me about the relative transparency of Chinese as compared to English.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 5:29 am

    @Jeff W

    Chinese make a lot of claims about their language and script that are simply untrue.

    As for the relative transparency of Chinese, send your friend to me. I could very quickly list hundreds of words that don't mean what the individual morphemes seem to indicate. Since we're discussing medical terms in this post, I'll just name a couple of well-known examples of Chinese words that are far from transparent:

    tiānhuā 天花 (lit., "heaven flower" –> "smallpox")



    jiǎoqì bìng 脚气病 (lit., "foot vapor sickness" –> "beriberi")



  31. Jeff W said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    Victor Mair

    send your friend to me

    Believe me, it’s very tempting.

    Really, I didn’t even try to assess his claim as to its truth or not, I was struck by the fact—sort of stunned, actually—that he could even make it. But if, as you say, Chinese make a lot of claims about their language and script that are simply untrue, I should not be so surprised.

  32. Eidolon said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

    There are, of course, plenty of terms in Chinese that have relatively opaque morphemic constructions. Butterfly 蝴蝶 being a classic example of a term that actually favors English in its etymological transparency.

    But Josh is largely correct in saying that the opacity of English scientific/philosophical words are due to the reliance on 'highbrow' loans from other languages, especially Greek and Latin, and that insofar as Chinese has less of these loans in its scientific/philosophical fields, it has greater transparency to a native speaker.

    There is, of course, a great deal of history and culture involved in explaining why English chose to rely so heavily on Greek and Latin morphemes in its academic jargon in lieu of native / colloquial words.

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