How often am I entreated, often over dessert, to recount a gruesome or otherwise humorous episode from my job in a big-city emergency room? I try to recall the most heinous sight or smell I have encountered since last dining with my companion. Memories of crooked long bones, close encounters with human effluence, and people acting like toddlers contend for the light of day.
I know the limits of my storytelling, for I am trained to be clinically succinct and not long-winded. I find the pithiest and titillating subject is the egregious abuse of language with which we contend day after day. Granted, medical terminology leans heavily on unabridged Greek and Latin, and pharmaceutical companies seem to take sardonic pleasure in christening common drugs with tongue-twisting names. For practical purposes in the ER, the inaccessible language of medicine often elicits chagrin, but it makes for fine conversation over a piece of pie.
Little to my surprise, I found a raft of websites devoted to this phenomenon. However, none of these do more than post one-a-day calendar snippets of doctor-patient dialogue. I believe these exquisite bastardizations of language are more than just cheap one-liners.
Let’s not be naïve; the best malapropisms are derived from ebonics, specifically Washington, D.C ebonics. Of course, I haven’t scratched my head about “aks” instead of “ask” since middle school. It is a dialect, and like most dialects, it offers an embarrassment of riches to asshole English majors looking for a laugh.
My favorite specimen from the front lines is vomicking. Is it a portmanteau of vomiting and puking? Probably not. The hard “K,” as pointed out by George Carlin, makes “cocksucker” and “motherfucker” the dirtiest of the dirty words. Likewise, it adds urgency to the complaint of a patient, much more so than its synonym, “spitting up,” which make me think of a well-nourished, burping infant. Considering literacy rates in the D.C. metro area (I recently saw a woman refer to her ID bracelet to correctly spell her first name), I can’t call “vomicking” a mispronunciation. Somebody has already vomicked in the pool of language spoken and rarely written or read. Look out for its 2015 debut in the OED.
Ambulances have lots of synonyms in medical parlance, such as a “box” or a “truck.” Around here, we call it an “ambulampse,” or if you are really daring, “bambulampse.” Amazingly, the accents fall on both the first and last syllable. The last syllable employs a truly unique sonic phenomenon. I am certain that nothing, repeat nothing, in any language rhymes with “bambulampse.” Further, I love this word because it reminds me of Fellini’s Amarcord, in which the dandyish Greek instructor fails to teach the class midget to pronounce Eh-mar-PTSA-men. Anything that harkens this film is untouchable in my estimation.
While Wilford Brimley popularized the pronunciation of “diabetes” as if it rhymed with “buy a fetus,” there are many wonderful ways to identify this terrible, debilitating disease. My friend Eric currently holds the pole position with “sugar-beatees.” This immediately makes me think that an unregulated intake of beet sugar may have been the culprit in her pathophysiology.
A recent addition to my secret stash was when a patient complained that her pain was unrelieved by medications she had been taking at home. “These oxycondoms aren’t doin’ nothin’!” she exclaimed. Truly, a woman after my own heart.
Mind you, I am not ridiculing the majority of lay people who shun humiliation and brave the snake pit of medical jargon. My heart melts when someone stumbles through their medications, such as “hy-hy-for blood pressure” (hydrochorothiazide, or HCTZ), “Lisipinil” (lisinopril), or even my cherished oxycondoms.
The lazier patients expect me to already have their medical history and medications in our database, which is sometimes but not always the case. All the treacherous linguistics boil down to one relevant suggestion to all patients with any chronic disease. Print all your medicines and specific conditions on a tiny piece of paper and slip it into your wallet. When prompted, hand this note to the doctor or nurse and rest assured that you’ve already said a mouthful.