Zackary Sholem Berger posts about how he combines his medical studies with his interest in languages:

Like every other medical student, I have a command of several different kinds of medical terminology: the mind-numbing jargon of the scientific literature, the half-macho talk of rounds and last but certainly not least important, the normal words people use to talk in English about whatever’s the matter with them.
It’s this last kind of vocabulary that I lack in Spanish. I can talk a blue streak about genetic predispositions and infectious agents, about endoscopies and anesthesia — these are international terms, much the same in Spanish, English and many other languages. But lay language is different. I’ve already experienced a certain kind of linguistic blockage more than once. I’ve started a conversation with a Spanish-speaking patient, we’ve built up something of a rapport, she’s complimented my Spanish, I’ve figured out why she’s come to the hospital. Then, all of a sudden, I need to ask a specific question to narrow down the field of possible diagnoses. I use what I think is the right word, and one of two expressions appears on the patient’s face: either outright incomprehension, or a polite glazed-over look that means, “I’m going to keep my mouth shut until I can figure out what the heck this nice doctor is saying.” It’s then that I have to search my dusty old neurons for a Spanish word I learned once, many years ago, or for a synonym that’s used in the home country of this particular patient. During one memorable conversation, a patient and I sat through a long, awkward pause before she figured out that I was asking about her period.

He points out that a lot of people would think he should be concentrating on the medical stuff, but says “I’m a person who doesn’t mind sacrificing a little efficiency (or even a lot) to get a good conversation going with the person sitting in front of me. Will that make me a better doctor? Beats me, but I know I’ll have more fun this way.” I personally think it will make him a better doctor, and in fact one reason my wife and I like our current doctor so much is that he actually converses with us as well as treating us. It is possible to be (in the words of his clever title) a medicine mensch.

Incidentally, poetry readers will also find his previous post, a review of a new translation of Pessoa, of interest.


  1. It makes me very happy to be mentioned in one of my favorite blogs. Thanks a lot!

  2. ZSB, I often have same “polite glazing-over” look, even when people speak English to me.
    I wonder if it’s contageous…
    Doctor, will I live?

  3. Doctor, will I live?
    Till a hundred and twenty, I hope.

  4. From your lips to God’s ear!

  5. I think I’ll get a second opinion…

  6. Okay, a hundred and eighteen, then. But that’s my final offer.

  7. I’ll take it, wrap it up. Especially since today marks yet another year over the third of that figure.

  8. Whoops, I forgot to mention the five-hundred-dollar co-pay. Credit cards cheerfully accepted.
    . . . and my birthday’s the 21st. What a (non-)coincidence!

  9. Happy birthday to both of you!

  10. Happy Birthday, from me (and to me, also born in early July), too!
    I was overwhelmed by Zackary’s post. I only wish I had met more physicians like him in my life in France, because most of my (30+ years long) experiences were just disastrous. Shortly put, a lot of presumably educated people assume that, if you have even a slight foreign accent, you must also have some mental deficiency. Or that coming from a South-Eastern European country implies that you are completely unable to talk without hyperboles, even when your pain is out there for anyone to see. I wish I could be charitable enough not to mention the “I can’t explain it… must be a Greek thing, something in your blood maybe” we used to get before Le Pen’s rhetoric became so popular.
    Zackary’s post reminded me of a passage in the first chapter (“Le Noir et le langage”) of Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs which I had originally copied for a friend. Alas, I don’t have the required skills (nor time, to be frank) to translate it into English, but I’d like to quote a bit of it, where Fanon mentions his experience as a Black (from Martinique) psychiatrist in colonized Algeria, while describing the function of “petit-nègre” talk:
    Parler aux nègres de cette façon, c’est aller à eux, c’est les mettre à leur aise, c’est vouloir
    se faire comprendre d’eux, c’est les rassurer…
    Les médecins des salles de consultation le savent. Vingt malades européens se succèdent :
    “Asseyez-vous, monsieur… Pourquoi venez-vous ?… De quoi souffrez-vous ?…”
    — Arrive un nègre ou un Arabe : “Assieds-toi, mon brave… Qu’est-ce que tu as ? … Où
    as-tu mal ?” — Quand ce n’est pas : “Quoi toi y en a ? …”
    […] Parler petit-nègre à un nègre, c’est le vexer, car il est celui-qui-parle-petit-nègre.
    Pourtant, nous dira-t-on, il n’y a pas intention, volonté de vexer. Nous l’accordons, mais c’est
    justement cette absence de volonté, cette désinvolture, cette nonchalance, cette facilité avec
    laquelle on le fixe, avec laquelle on l’emprisonne, on le primitivise, l’anticivilise, qui est
    Si celui qui s’adresse en petit-nègre à un homme de couleur ou à un Arabe ne reconnaît
    pas dans ce comportement une tare, un vice, c’est qu’il n’a jamais réfléchi. Personnellement,
    il nous arrive, en interrogeant certains malades, de sentir à quel moment nous glissons…
    En face de cette vieille paysanne de soixante-treize ans, débile mentale, en plein processus démentiel, je sens tout à coup s’effondrer les antennes par lesquelles je touche et par lesquelles je suis touché. Le fait pour moi d’adopter un langage approprié à la démence, à la
    débilité mentale ; le fait pour moi de me « pencher » sur cette pauvre vieille de soixante-treize ans ; le fait pour moi d’aller à elle, à la recherche d’un diagnostic, est le stigmate d’un fléchissement dans mes relations humaines.
    C’est un idéaliste, dira-on. Mais non, ce son les autres qui sont des salauds. Pour ma part,
    je m’adresse toujours aux « bicots » en français correct, et j’ai toujours été compris. Ils me
    répondent comme ils peuvent, mais je me refuse à toute compréhension paternaliste.
    — Bonjour, mon z’ami ! Où y a mal ? Hé ? Dis voir un peu ? Le ventre ? Le cœur ?
    … Avec le petit accent que les hypos des salles de consultation connaissent bien.
    On a bonne conscience quand la réponse arrive sur le même mode. “Vous voyez, on ne
    vous raconte pas de blagues. Ils sont comme ça.”
    Dans le cas contraire, il faudra rappeler ses pseudopodes et se comporter en homme. Tout
    l’édifice s’écroule. Un Noir qui vous dit : “Monsieur, je ne suis nullement votre brave…”
    Du nouveau dans le monde.

    (Frantz FANON, Peau noire, masques blancs, Paris, Seuil, 1971 (1st ed. : 1952), pp. 24-26, 28).
    Needless to say, i put Zackary on a par with Fanon here.

  11. Po, po, that was longer than expected. My apologies, LH, I’ll try to refrain next time.

  12. Pas du tout! My comment boxes have plenty of room, and my readers have sufficient attention spans. That was a great quote, and I wouldn’t have you refrain from such another.

  13. ah, doctors…always ready to oblige…would you barter for this instead?
    As somebody mentioned today, there is a noted surge in b’days in July, must be something in that Fall air – and all of July babies are best people there is.
    Hurray to us!

  14. Hurray! (July 1 here.)

  15. Jimmy Ho says

    Thanks, LH, ça me rassure!
    And I’m glad you liked the quote; I did cut a lot from my original two-pages PDF (there is more before and after), but it still makes sense, despite the absence of paragraph breaks (forgot to add them after pasting).

  16. Just an inconsequential piece on an obscure Latin construction:
    I’m not trying to confuse you, but I was once told by a semi-serious writer that you could actually use a Latin grammatical construction called the Ablative Absolute and make sense out of it in English.
    OK, here goes, with some ablative mutati (in quotations) of my own:
    ‘The ablative absolute is the Rolls-Royce of Latin constructions: it’s elegant, it’s powerful, it’s classy, and it’s not really English’.(Source: http://www.rhul.ac.uk/Classics)
    It’s so called because it sticks into the ablative any words that are absolutely detached from the rest of the sentence.
    There are five main kinds of ablative absolutes,
    but you have to remember that there’s no present participle of sum (equivalent to the English “being” in any of them – and no such word as essens, essentis.
    You get round this by allowing omission of the Latin ‘sum’ in ablative absolutes just as it’s permitted in indicative clauses.
    In the last two cases, as the first alternative translation for each shows, what you’ve effectively got is an ablative absolute with the omission of the present participle of the Latin ‘sum’.
    There isn’t a perfect participle futus, -a, -um either, for the simple reason that perfect participles are passive and you can’t (in any language) have a passive of the verb “to be”. (You can rephrase “I love my dog” as “My dog is loved by me”, but you can’t rephrase “I am happy” as “happy is being been by me” without serious Yugoslavian misunderstandings).
    But because the Latin ‘sum’ does have a future participle: futurus, -a, -um, you can say things like ‘Caesare futuro duce’ – “With Caesar about to become Il Duce” (some crazy things will happen)”.
    Contrary to what the book says, the ablative absolute is consistently translatable, though it won’t always sound very idiomatic in English: you can (nearly) always just translate it as an ordinary ablative with “with” (as opposed to “by”, “from”, and “in”).
    But most of the time it’ll be better English to paraphrase it with a quite different finite-verb construction using a conjunction like “when”, “because”, “since”, etc.
    So the ablative absolute is a Latin based adverbial modifier of a predicative conditional sometimes described in English as a gerundive.
    In other words it predicts a conditional based on something absolute like the “with sun comiing up each morning, light will prevail” and “With Caesar about to be…” kinda, sorta prevailing rules of engagement will already exist or come into existence.
    It is, however, not grammatically dependent on any other conditional in the sentence: hence its name absolute (absolitus, i.e. free or unconnected – it stands alone, like the Americans seem to be possibly about to be, kinda, sorta conditionally dependent on whether you work in Euros or Dollars).
    A substantive in the ablative absolute for no known reason very seldom denotes a person or thing elsewhere mentioned in the same clause, but the conditional applies through the gerundive which is defined as a conditional anyway.
    Enough of that, Caesar did his Pax Romana thing and thd Pax Americana follows a little later.
    Tom Dennen

  17. All greetings! The life is short, suck till the morning.
    [I’ve eliminated the spam link and product name, but I couldn’t bring myself to delete the poetic message — LH.]

  18. A year or two before this was posted, I was working at Reuters Health. A company who’s name I have forgotten tried to sell us a database of English-language folk medical terms with technical translations, to let people search for their ailments in terms familiar to them. Only two have stuck in my mind: the sugar ‘diabetes’ and the vapors ‘menopause’. The OED, however, defines the latter thus:

    In older medical use: Exhalations supposed to be developed within the organs of the body (esp. the stomach) and to have an injurious effect upon the health.

    [citations omitted]

    A morbid condition supposed to be caused by the presence of such exhalations; depression of spirits, hypochondria, hysteria, or other nervous disorder. Now arch. (Common c1665–1750.)

Speak Your Mind