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Our Syndrome Syndrome

by Mark Peters

June 15, 2009

From jargon to slang, a useful word catches on and spreads

Some words just don't do a lot of work. Frankly, it's a disgrace. Take snorkel. In my professional opinion, that is an inherently awesome-sounding word. I wish it had more variations (like the old "Bloom County" monster, the giant purple snorklewhacker) and metaphorical uses (In the first ever Bushisms book, George Herbert Walker Bush memorably said, "You know, every day, many important papers come across the desk in that marvelous Oval Office, and very few items remain there for long. Got to keep that paper moving or you get inundated. Your snorkel will fill up and there will be no justice."). But snorkel appears in so few tweets, White House briefings, and movie trailers these days. It's a bummer.Just as snorkel is a slacker, other words are workaholics, pulling triple shifts and all-nighters, describing stuff that is deadly serious, kind of serious, totally ridiculous, and everything in between. Syndrome is one of these overachievers. From physical conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and psychological conditions like Stockholm syndrome, all the way down to slang like 1661 syndrome (someone, usually a woman, who looks 16 from the back, 61 from the front), the word syndrome is always on the go. The syndrome syndrome is, it seems, incurable.Recent syndromes in the news show the word's range:The Los Angeles Times reports on the anger of being wronged and "post-traumatic embitterment syndrome."Something called white-noise syndrome is killing bats, according to United Press International.The new search engine Bing is promoting the concept of Search Overload Syndrome, for which their drug-er, search engine-is the cure.Dashiell Bennett hilariously suggests that vision-and-home-run-impaired Red Sox slugger David Ortiz is struggling with Mr. Magoo Syndrome.And a neurologist has-I kid you not-referred to tight jean syndrome, a phenomenon that is actually unhealthy, if fashionable.Colloquially, syndrome and disorder are used interchangeably, but medically, they are different. Stedman's Medical Dictionary defines a syndrome as, "The aggregate of symptoms and signs associated with any morbid process, and constituting together the picture of the disease," while a disorder is "A disturbance of function, structure, or both, resulting from a genetic or embryonic failure in development or from exogenous factors such as poison, trauma, or disease." So a syndrome is like a basket of bad things, while a disorder is more of a singular medical abnormality. It makes sense: the Greek root syn means "together, similarly, alike" and is also part of synchronous and synergy. But even in medicine, the words can be hard to distinguish: post-traumatic stress syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder mean the same thing.As always, language is the ultimate "That's why we can't have nice things" thing. Formal terms are prone to colloquialization. For syndrome, the OED's first such example was by Aldous Huxley, back in 1955: "She took a professional interest in caterpillars... It was part of the Gloom-Tomb syndrome. Caterpillars were the nearest approach, in real life, to Edgar Allen Poe." That use is the ancestor of such contemporary coinages as progressive exploding brain syndrome, nameless-repeating-song syndrome, canine really anxious poo syndrome, and sudden onset Stevie Nicks syndrome.As I've written elsewhere, the slang of syndromes lends itself particularly well to formulaic new variations, or snowclones. This is how you get from the sober post-traumatic stress syndrome to the silly post-traumatic cheesesteak syndrome. More recently, a George W. Bush-derived syndrome snowclone has shown signs it will outlive that president's administration by a stretch: X derangement syndrome.Bush derangement syndrome got the ball rolling in 2003 when Charles Krauthammer coined it to describe what he percieved to be a liberal obsession with George W. Bush. Now, virtually anyone who dislikes a politician gets slapped with a similar diagnosis. I've seen many examples of Obama derangement syndrome, plus versions involving Palin, McCain, both Clintons, Rick Warren, Fox News, Blagojevich, Huckabee, global warming, and Joe the Plumber.And, as always happens with snowclones, some out-there examples pop up, like Rachael Ray derangement syndrome and Snuggie derangement syndrome, used by someone who can't quite handle seeing yet another commercial for the so-called "blanket with sleeves." When an expression migrates all the way from Dubya to Snuggies, it's safe to say it's catching on.Weirdly, I think the syndrome-coining researchers and bloggers have more in common than just this versatile, stretchy word. Why is bitterness so powerful that some people can no longer function? It must be post-traumatic bitterness syndrome. Why does a children's doll have a chest region that is utterly preposterous? It must be Tomb Raider mega-boobies syndrome. Whether we seek to heal or snark, if we're at a loss, the syndrome syndrome binds us together and bails us out. I hope they never make a pill for it.
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Our Syndrome Syndrome