Changes in the use of eponyms and toponyms to name diseases

Christina Kazzi, Sarah White, Mark Butlin

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


    Medical terminology is dynamic and continuously changing over time. Many diseases are named after people (eponyms) and places (toponyms). However, the use of eponyms and toponyms has received considerable criticism. The World Health Organisation has discouraged the use of eponyms and toponyms in favour of naming diseases using pathology or descriptive terms. Whilst some people may adopt new nomenclature for diseases with existing eponyms or toponyms, the rate at which change occurs across the community has not been studied. This study investigates whether eponyms and toponyms are being discarded for medically-descriptive terms and if this rate of change is influenced by the offensive nature of the disease name. Twenty-two eponymous and toponymous diseases were paired with their medically-descriptive synonym(s) and placed into two groups: neutral and problematic. Names are deemed problematic if their namesakes are associated with Nazi crimes, or if they are toponyms, which can stigmatise particular populations. Disease names were searched using the Google books n-gram viewer, which depicts the frequency of the search name in the English language corpus. The frequency of an eponym or toponym was divided by the frequencies of all the names of the specified disease. This proportion statistic was calculated for all years from the disease’s first mention to 2008, which is when the Google Books corpus data ends. The trend in the usage of each term was quantified by regression statistics. A majority of neutral eponymous terms were found to increase in usage, while a majority of the offensive eponyms and toponyms declined. Rate of change varied from 0.02% to 4.45% per year. Further studies are required to investigate whether the trends that have been discovered extends outside literature into everyday discourse.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2018
    EventMACQUARIE – FUDAN 5th Reciprocal Workshop: Medical Terms and their Contexts of Use - Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
    Duration: 23 Apr 201824 Apr 2018


    WorkshopMACQUARIE – FUDAN 5th Reciprocal Workshop: Medical Terms and their Contexts of Use


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