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September 20, 2019  |  Friday words #189  |  951 hit(s)

I got this week's new-to-me word from an article about the Washington Redskins, the American professional football team whose mascot has for years been embroiled in controversy. The article claims that the team has used pretendians to suggest that the mascot does not bother Native Americans. Pretendians, as the article explains, are people who claim to have Native American heritage, but who don't. (The article says that if you survey real Native Americans, you get a quite a different picture about whether the mascot is offensive.)

The pretendian phenomenon is interesting sociologically. As one blog post explains, some people seem drawn to the idea of having native ancestry, based on weak or no evidence, and become enamored of its manifestations; they'll often appropriate those manifestations, or their interpretations of them. And some people go further and exploit their supposed connection, such as checking boxes for ethnic origin.

Anyway, back on topic. The word pretendian is also interesting in a couple of wordish ways. It seems to be a portmanteau of pretend + Indian. The -ian part also works because -an/-ian is a general suffix for, among other things, people associated with a thing. Thus Chicagoan and Republican and dietician and guardian. (And, ahem, Indian as a demonym.) This second thing—the -ian suffix—means that pretendian could theoretically mean anyone pretending to be any particular thing. But as far as I can tell, the word is used only for people making some sort of claim on Native American ethnicity.

For origins today, I have a medical term with a surprisingly fanciful origin: syphilis. We get all our medical terms from Latin, right? Yes, but. The word comes from "Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus," a poem written in Latin in the 1500s by the Italian doctor Girolamo Fracastoro. The title translates as "Syphilis, or the French Disease." (The Italians thought that syphilis had been introduced to their country by French troops.)

Syphilus (in the original spelling), the protagonist of the poem, was a shepherd who suffered from the malady. In the poem, Syphilus watches flocks for King Alcithous, but the god Sirius …

… threw the fire of his rays on these fields. A torrid heat burned the earth; the forests had no shade, the breeze was no longer cool. Syphilus saw his animals dying.

Syphilus is upset by this and tells Sirius that King Alcithous's power "is greater than thine and that of all the other gods." He also gets others to turn away from Sirius. Sirius doesn't like that:

In his anger, he charges his rays with pestilential poisons and virulent miasms, which simultaneously infect the air, the earth and the waters. At once upon this criminal earth there arises an unknown plague. Syphilus is the first attacked by it, on account of having been the first to profane the sacred altars. A hideous leprosy covers his body; fearful pains torture his limbs and banish sleep from his eyes. Then, this terrible disease—known since then among us by the name of Syphilis—does not take long to spread in our entire nation, not even sparing our King himself.[1]

So there you have it: syphilis the disease is named for a shepherd who pissed off a deity. Normally our medical eponyms are based on the name of the person who first described a disease. Syphilis, on the other hand, is a rare case of a disease named not only for a victim, but of a fictional victim to boot. There's some trivia you can roll out at your next dinner party.

[1] I got the prose translation of the original Latin from a 1911 book digitized on the Internet Archive site. There doesn't seem to be an individual credit, tho.

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