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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2003-06-1)

“Let’s hope we have no worse to plague us,” sang Noel Coward back in the fifties, “than two shows a night in Las Vegas.” A handy fellow with rhymes was our Mr Coward, may he rest in peace.

But alas, he was over-optimistic about plagues: they seem to be proliferating all around us with unseemly vigour. After all, we have lived through some centuries of scientific endeavour, and disease should by now be a thing of the past, shouldn’t it?

Instead, we have the AIDS virus, decimating the population of sub-Saharan Africa and flourishing elsewhere as well. Malaria seems to be resistant to most of the armaments we possess to combat it. There are rumours of poliomyelitis returning, with those who have been inoculated against it acting as carriers to afflict those who have not. And finally we have the SARS virus, which presents the threat of an epidemic so serious that the Centres for Disease Control in the United States have issued their first global warning in ten years. That’s what the newspapers say, anyway.

SARS, now – what do the letters stand for? Quite simply, for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, although one frisky journalist here in South Africa has already managed to get it wrong, substituting the word “sudden” for “severe”. A fellow scribe wondered, “How can something be both severe and acute?” It’s a good question, because a lot of us, when thinking of medical matters, might think that they mean the same thing – a severe pain and an acute pain sound pretty much identical. The Chambers Dictionary even lists “acute” among several meanings for “severe”. The Shorter Oxford avoids that trap, and (in the medical sense) gives “attended with a maximum of pain or distress, violent.”

The problem lies in the meaning given to “acute” by the medical world. Chambers gives several general meanings, from “sharp-pointed” to “shrewd”, but “(of a disease) coming to a crisis (opposite to chronic).” The Shorter Oxford says “comingsharplyto a crisis, not chronic.” In the end I asked our doctor what meaning he would give the word. He played down the element of crisis, and simply said that it implied the suddenness of an attack, sometimes out of the blue, sometimes a sharp deterioration in an existing chronic condition. So our inventive journalist wasn’t too far off the mark, except that he picked on the wrong word to translate as “sudden.”

“Respiratory” can’t be misunderstood, though its pronunciation can cause debate, which we won’t go into here. “Syndrome” is quite interesting, though. It shares a syllable with “hippodrome” (a racecourse for horses) and “aerodrome”, the common element being the Greek root “dromos”, which the two dictionaries quoted above translate variously as “race”, “course”, or “running.” The syllable “syn” is simply the Greek word for “together, with”, so the whole thing means “a running together.” A syndrome is neatly defined by Chambers as “a concurrence of symptoms”, just what we have when Tuesday’s mild headache, Wednesday’s runny nose, and Friday’s mild fever all come together on Saturday.

Suddenly we’re ill, it’s the weekend, and the doctor’s playing golf. Take two aspirin and call him on Monday. We’d better hope it’s not SARS.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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