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Jane Bates: Word perfect

Jane Bates ponders the power of a name.

Jane Bates ponders the power of a name

I crept up on the creature, silent as a snake, then snapped. I caught it – the perfect photograph of the perfect butterfly. I realised immediately it was a rare specimen.

Feeling more pleased with myself than David Cameron on the morning of May 8, I shared the picture with my wildlife-loving friends. We then spent a happy afternoon rifling through books and on the internet trying to identify it.

A Duke of Burgundy, said one. A dark green fritillary, said another. And then it suddenly struck me as absurd. Why do we get so much satisfaction from designating things?

In the Garden of Eden, we’re told, Adam gave names to all the birds and beasts. Humans have even named obscure bits of rock orbiting obscure planets, but why?

After many years I now appreciate that patients, too, like to know what their condition is called, even if it involves such woolly terminology as ‘non-specific’.

Nothing makes patients’ eyes roll as much as a diagnosis of ‘just a virus’. ‘Yes, I know it is trivial and I just need to take paracetemol, but I still want to know what I’ve got,’ they say. Recently I had some joint pain after a flu-type illness and my diagnosis of ‘reactive arthralgia’ put it in its place, even if it was only a description of symptoms and aetiology.

This is not just to glean information or impress our friends, it is to do with control. When I was young, many doctors thought it unnecessary to bother members of the public with their diagnoses. Such details, they would argue, were for the medical profession to worry about. Just you concentrate on getting better, they would say, which sounds rather patronising now.

But they were unaware of our basic human instinct that requires us to specify, to designate, to nominate. To keep things under control and keep the chaos at bay.


About the author

Jane Bates

Jane Bates is an ophthalmic nurse in Hampshire

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