WORDS

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The Independent Online
Syndrome THE young houseman who collapsed after working an 86-hour week was said at his inquest to have suffered from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, or Sads. The verdict wasn't much comfort, being only another way of saying that doctors weren't sure why hedied. All we know for certain is that it was a common case of medical obfuscation.

It was also an abuse of the technical term syndrome, which is the Greek equivalent of the Latinderived concurrence, and ought to mean a group of different symptoms which together identify a disease. Most of the many hundreds of syndromes known to the trade are of this sort; the Alice In Wonderland syndrome, for instance, may combine a feeling of levitation with epilepsy and migraine. Among these, however, is a number of syndromes which have only one symptom. Like the Ekbom restless legs syndrome, which is called a syndrome, so far as I can see, only because its cause is uncertain.

If doctors use the word loosely, it's not surprising that laymen use it more loosely still, and that a syndrome has come to mean no more than a characteristic, or quirk. If we want to suggest that a man is envious of monarchs we might remark that he is suffering from the Jack Straw syndrome, enabling us to be rude about two people at the same time. Medical convention names syndromes not after those who have them but after those who first discovered them - Cushing's, Down's, Reifenstein's and the rest. (Doctors do it too. A nice example is the Munchausen syndromes used of people who enjoy making up illnesses they haven't got.)

Syndrome is not one of those words like terminal, which began as a general word, was taken over much later by doctors, and was then taken back and misapplied by laymen. ("So-and-so is terminally shy," they say, though shyness is hardly a fatal condition.) It was a medical term from its first use in the 16th century. But it has been put to too many purposes, and has lost its edge.

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