My son is a senior in college, so we speak infrequently. I raised him well enough that he stays out of trouble and manages his finances well. As a result, he never calls me. When I do decide to call him, it’s usually between 4:30 and 5:30 PM trying to find a time between his work and classes, and my Early Bird dinner and NCIS. During the rare conversations when he actually picks up the phone, he often mentions having “The Itis”. It’s at this point that I realize that he only picked up the call because he was in too deep of a stupor to screen it.
“The Itis” is defined in The Urban Dictionary as the drowsy feeling you get after a big meal. Unlike Thanksgiving, where bingeing is combined with tryptophan, a sleep inducing chemical found in turkey, the itis is all about excess. Of course, my son and his generation misuse the term as they do for most of the English language, applying the itis to all forms of bingeing behavior including binge studying, binge drinking, binge tv watching and God only knows what else. What primarily struck me as odd, however, was his use of the definite article “The” in front of the ailment.
I thought about the fact that some diseases or medical conditions seem to be naturally preceded by an article or pronoun while many are not. I recalled my friend Jimmy recently mentioning to me that he had “The Gout”. Instead of commiserating, or asking if it would affect our golf outings, I immediately said, “Dude, Ben Franklin had the gout. I’m pretty sure that you just have gout.” Since golf was out due to Jimmy’s writhing in pain, I decided to look more deeply into this phenomenon.
I have the flu.
I have a cold.
I have cancer.
I suppose if people were to still use influenza rather than flu, they would drop the article. I’m also not sure why it was shortened from four syllables to one. While it is mildly expedient, we do not call leukemia “the Luke” or “the Keem” or impetigo “the Tige”. Also you take a flu shot to prevent the flu. Since it is a specific vaccine to prevent many types of flu, shouldn’t it be “you take the flu shot to prevent a flu?”
There are other difficulties with the definite (the) and indefinite (a) articles. We tend to say that “My kid has the measles”, or “My kid has the mumps” even though it’s unlikely that they have only one, yet one might specify “I’ve got a bum ticker” as though they are relieved to have another as a backup. Hemorrhoids are always plural and are unmodified, while “the red” ass is singular and always uses the definite article. Diarrhea is unmodified, but we say “the trots”, or “the runs”.
Sometimes the specificity of the ailment affects its usage. I am not referring to borderline ailments like “the hiccups” or colloquial euphemisms like “the heebie-jeebies”. You’d say “I have syphilis”, or “I have gonorrhea”, but if you were being general, you’d say “I have the clap”. I’m pretty sure that either “I have crabs” or “I have the crabs” is acceptable.
I have also found that certain pronouns tend to become attached to particular maladies. I’m not talking about new-age pronoun usage like “we’re pregnant”. I mean true medical emergencies such as “Doctor, I have this rash”, or “I have this discharge”.
When discussing this with my friend Tyrone, he pointed out that age was not the only factor affecting the way people referred to health-related terms. He said that all of his relatives in or from the South always modify diabetes as “sugar diabetes”. While I do not feel this has the homespun quaintness of “sweet tea”, it seems to include a warning or treatment option in its redundancy. Calling lung cancer “the smoke cancer” certainly would not be less of a deterrent.
I can imagine a conversation between a young doctor from Connecticut doing his residency in a rural Arkansas hospital and an older patient.
“So tell me a little bit about your medical history Mr. Pickett. Do you mind if I call you Cletus?”
“That’d be fine Dr. Steen-burg. I got the sugar diabetes and a touch of the gout, least when it rains a lot.”
“What about your parents?”
“Well, my Daddy died from a bacon stroke.”
“And your Mother?”
“She rolled the tractor clean into the irrigation pond. We never found out was it her heart, the fall, or the drownin’ that killed her. She did have the Crisco coronary artery disease, I reckon.”
“I see. Well, I’m going to need you to stand up and cough for me.”
“Son, I don’t know much about doctorin’, but if you’re thinkin’ ‘bout puttin’ them there fingers on these here testicles, you’re gonna hafta order up a few more doctors.”
I found a few more to add to my list.
The gunshot wound
I’ll leave it up to you to continue my research. Quite frankly, I’ve got the itis. I hope I can make it to NCIS Los Angeles.
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