I came down with a case of conjunctivitis, which sounds like it ought to be a disease of language. In a logical world, conjunctivitis would be “an uncontrolled swelling of the connective tissue between words, phrases and clauses”.
“We can beat Ike Clanton’s gang at O.K. Corral,” Wyatt Earp told the sheriff, “BUT I’ll need you and your deputies to back me up”.
“But, but … that’s a mighty big BUT, Mr. Earp. “
“It is a big but, but I’ve got conjunctivitis so I can’t help it. My buts are huge and out of control. And so are my so’s. And my ands!”
Alas, conjunctivitis is not about inflamed conjunctions, or about language at all. It’s the official term for “Pink Eye”, which is a swelling of the tissue around the eyeball but even that seems inadequate. “Pink Eye” sounds too emotionally rich and secretly fun to be attached to such a dreary condition. It ought to be the way we describe a look of fierce flamboyance.
“I’m trying to keep my distance from Melvin. He’s got that feather boa out of its box, and he’s been giving me the Pink Eye all night.”
Other misnamed maladies:
Cowpox: You can get it from handling the udder of a cow, but if you are a typical urbanite, you’d be more likely to get it from cats or mice. If the infection gave you big brown eyes and made you look like a Holstein, maybe the name would fit. It doesn’t.
Hay Fever: Next time you start sneezing, check to see if there’s any hay around. And while you’re looking, where’s the fever?
Morning Sickness: If only it limited itself to one time of day.
Clearly these are maladies that were named by people who weren’t feeling well enough to be exact. And it doesn’t stop at illnesses. What about Iceland and Greenland? Literally and figuratively, let’s not even go there.
Nickels aren’t pure nickel. Eyeglasses contain no glass. Peanuts are beans. Shooting stars aren’t stars. Panama hats came from Ecuador. Freeways aren’t free.
Should we establish a commission to re-name every misleading thing?
If we did, what would we call it?