Wednesday, April 20, 2005

You Say Caduceus, I Say Aesculapius


I value symbols and language highly and, though I don't deny that both are subject to evolution, I do feel there should be a reasonable limit to the degree of abstraction or change. If anything goes, a great deal of the so-called evolution is instead de-evolution.

No one, to use a far-fetched example, would accept the word “sun” being used to denote the moon. The two celestial bodies are not opposites, but they are nonetheless distinct; the earth orbits the sun while the moon orbits the earth. If a lover were to gesture at the pale orb above and proclaim, “What a beautiful night.! The sun is full and the stars are bright,” you'd likely balk.

Some language picadillos are specific to our field or area of expertise. Few of my friends are galled by the catch-all term “seagull.” But birders and wildlife biologists recognize that there are 27 known species of gull in North America alone, and many of these gulls have little association with the “sea.” An equivalent misnomer, then, would be our calling all humans “watermen,” though only a small minority of Homo sapiens still eke out a living from the ocean.

Some vocabulary hang-ups of mine are, like "ATM machine," shared by many other people. Examples are the recently popular “irregardless” and the New York City MTA's “momentarily”/”in a moment” confusion. More extreme than I, my father has raged against the use of the word “bathroom” for years. He points out that most public restrooms contain no bath. He prefers “toilet,” “water closet” or “head.” Because I so frequently use the word “restroom,” he chides me by asking if I intend to sleep or lie down on the tile floor. Perhaps, then, a late night of drinking makes the term "restroom" accurate?

The meaning or significance of a symbol is more steadfast. A change in attributed meaning is most often due to outright misuse. Some hipsters wear East German military insignia as an ironic or “hip” gesture but, despite the changed context, the marking still retains its original meaning. Or does it? Typically, the teenagers and twenty-somethings that don military decoration do not know what the medals mean. Even Hollywood costume designers treat these medals and ribbons as general signifiers of military do-gooding. Rarely do they take the time to learn what each medal represents. As a result, Hollywood often presents audiences with an Army officer whose chest is covered in Navy and Air Force ribbons! To a certain segment of the movie-going audience, this is a major "Whoops!"

No bastardization of a symbol, however, is so glaring as the misuse of the caduceus by medical professionals. The familiar image of two snakes entwined about a winged staff is used by a slight majority of medical practitioners and groups. The caduceus, though, has nothing to do with medicine! It is the staff of Hermes.
“…Hermes was also considered to be the god of commerce and wealth, which in turn implies a sense of personal self-interest along with the possibility of stretching the truth to meet one’s own needs. Hermes was known as the patron god of thieves due to his many tricks and lies. The quality of dishonesty is not one that most people want to see in their physician, therefore a symbol that is traced back to representing trickery and deceit should not be used to represent a profession as highly regarded in trust as medicine. Additionally, Hermes is also said to have used his caduceus staff to lead the souls of those who passed away to the underworld, which is the opposite idea than that stated in the Hippocratic Oath that a physician is charged with.”
The symbol of medicine is actually Aesculapius’s staff, which features ONE snake curled around a rod. Aesculapius, appropriately, was the God of Medicine.
“The son of Apollo, god of health, Aesculapius is said to have been pulled from the womb as his mortal mother was dying, which came to symbolize a physician’s ability to turn death into life. Throughout his life, Aesculapius used medicinal herbs and surgical procedures to heal the sick and dying, with his culmination of the art being the ability to bring the dead back to life. In one episode of mythology, Aesculapius was said to have been inside a temple when a serpent came to him and wound itself up and around his walking staff. He killed the serpent, only to have a second slither in and use an herb to bring its dead comrade back to life. This brings forth the explanation for the revered symbol of Aesculapius’s staff, with this herb being the major discovery of his life. The snake was seen as a servant to Aesculapius in his healing, and was worshiped as such.”
Clearly, the two symbols became confused at some point. Kim Scott wrote a short history of the confusion, "The History and Confusion of the Caduceus symbol and the Staff of Aesculapius in Medicine," from which the above selections are drawn. Scott dates the initial mix-up to circa 1500. Apparently, the symbolic SNAFU led to twentieth century medical newsletters using the word caduceus in their titles!

The conservative commentator in me feels that our educational system is in need of a visit from Aesculapius, too.

3 comments:

Devo said...

You know perfectly well how much I agree with you, HH. I've told you before of my personal favorite abuse of the English language: the use of the word "leverage" as a verb. That infuriates me, even though it's probably one of the more forgiveable sins against clarity. Also, the misuse of the word "presently" makes me twitch in a mildly Tourettian manner. It doesn't mean "now" ya friggin' douchebags!!! It means SOON!!! Oh, and another big one is the phrase "begs the question." Just stop saying it, everyone. That would be far easier than explaining to the millions and millions of windbags who try to sound intelligent by uttering that phrase what it actually means.

Anyway, thanks for posting about the Cadeuceus. Honestly, I don't think it's all that surprising or ironic that it became the symbol for medicine. I mean, I trust doctors about as much as I trust mechanics. Every one will tell you something different, except in major cases like heart failure, obesity or cancer. Those just kinda demand honesty and straightforwardness. But the bottom line is just that: the bottom line. And unfortunately the bottom line that seems to be gaining more and more influence is the bottom line of the pharmaceutical companies. They have much more to gain and lose in the healthcare game than just about anyone else. The insurance companies and the lawyers are pretty much on the way out as far as the LEVERAGE they have to squeeze more money from the system. But the more drugs that come out, the more money to be made from them.

Anyway, doctors are not in the business of healing anymore. They're in the business of insuring their industry. By that I mean, insuring that illness and disease remain a constant influence in our lives. If they actually HEALED people, there wouldn't be much left to DO, now would there? Not much of a method of making a living in our hypercommercial, consumerist society.

Best part is when we export this type of health care to third world countries via ostensibly humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders. Good? Bad? Who knows???? What do YOU think, HH?

Excellent post, mate! Good show...

OGeorge said...

I’ve been lucky with the doctors in my life. Devo, they ARE organic mechanics; but some are still good people and plenty smart. Recently when my mother’s insurance wouldn’t pay for her very expensive Alzheimer’s medication, her doctor arranged for “samples” from the pharmaceutical company amounting to over $1,000 worth of the drug. My own personal doctor is a brilliant young man, recommended by a brilliant friend. Granted, I take very good care of myself, but he truly seems concerned with keeping me healthy and he discounts his services because I have no insurance (at the moment). He never talks down to me either. He accepts that I’m a fairly intelligent adult and treats me so.

As far as the language goes, my problem is that I’m starting to find myself using phrases like “the fact of the matter is” too often. I just want to slap myself. Inexact use of theory and faith bother me the most beyond the people who don’t even bother to get “tense” correct; “what you shoulda did”, ect.

There’s also the always infamous “where are you at”, and like when people say “like”.

Hungry Hyaena said...

I guess I come down on doctors somewhere in between the two of you.

My grandfather was a general practitioner who told his children that "all doctors are crooks." In turn, the same attitude was preached by my father. Compounding matters, I have had bad experiences, especially with dentists, in which the doctor recommends expensive and unnecessary procedures.

On the other hand, I do know some doctors who are excellent and will go out of their way to avoid charging extra fees or making frivolous recommendations.

On Wednesday morning, for example, I had my first filling in years (no cavity, but some deep wear on one of my bottom wisdom teeth) and the dentist asked if I wanted local or not. Because these shots are expensive and because the dentist told me the drilling would be relatively shallow since the tooth was otherwise healthy, I opted to go without an injection. That saved me a tidy sum (about $150.00). I appreciate such candor.

On the language "tip," I agree with all examples the two of you provide. The use of "like" is particularly vexing to me, probably because I use it so damn much. I'm no valley girl - I don't, like, stick the word in the middle of my, like, sentences - but I often say, "He was like, 'How are you?'" In other words, I substitute "said" or "asked" with "was like." Why? I don't know. I'm trying my best to stop such nonsense, but a steady diet of MTV in college did a lot of damage.