One of the reasons why English enjoys its pre-eminent place among the languages of the world is the wealth of its vocabulary. It is not merely by borrowing from other languages that the vocabulary grows. Existing words assume new meanings, and are put to metaphorical use. In this column, we look at the way names of diseases have turned into metaphors to enhance the resources of English vocabulary.

“Allergy" has been at the centre of a debate since the days of prescriptive grammarians. It means “an abnormal reaction of the body to certain substances such as pollen, hypersensitivity to substances". In common use today, it has the opposite meaning: a dislike or aversion to a person or activity, insensitivity, as in “I am allergic to film music".

Rajiv Gandhi, according to media reports, remarked that Uttar Pradesh lagged behind because of myopic political vision. Myopia a disease of the eye, which makes distant objects appear blurred. Its meaning has been extended to refer to people who are short-sighted, who do not have a long-range view of things. The word is formed from Greek myein, “to close" and ops “eye".

A similar change took place in the meaning of jaundice. The word is related to French jaune, “yellow", and refers to a disease that causes things to appear yellow. The eyes and skin turn yellow. The extended meaning of jaundiced is resentful, strongly prejudiced. “He has a jaundiced view of social harmony."

Atrophy is a word that is in fairly common use. It is made up of the roots—a refers to “without" and troph, “food". It means without nourishment. When a system atrophies, it becomes weaker and ineffective. It can refer to a body part, as in “an atrophied arm". Here is an example of its extended meaning: “Music begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the dance" (Ezra Pound).

Vertigo is a disease that causes giddiness when one looks down from a great height. From it is formed the adjective vertiginous, which means changing quickly, unstable. Here is an example from an article by Kate Hodal which appeared in The Guardian: “(Anwar Ibrahim’s) political career has suffered vertiginous highs and lows."

Cancer is now a topical word. “Cancer of corruption" has been a phrase bandied about by politicians, media persons and bureaucrats. In medicine, cancer is defined as a malignant tumour that can spread to other parts of the body. Metaphorically, it is applied to any evil influence that spreads dangerously. Cancer is represented by the prefix carcino, which is related to Greek karkinos (crab) and according to my dictionary to Sanskrit karkata (crab), the fourth sign of the zodiac.

Measles is a disease that leaves a rash on the body. It is also known as German measles, since the disease was first described by German physicians. The adjective formed from it, measly, does not refer to any disease. Measly is a harsh fault-finding word, which means contemptibly small, paltry. “The company gave me a measly raise of Rs100."

To end this column, we have an example from an article written by San Luis for the Manila Bulletin: He exhorted his countrymen not to neglect English, saying: “We suffer from a diarrhoea of words and a constipation of ideas." You can use that as a put-down when some garrulous intruder wastes your time.

V.R. Narayanaswami, is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column

Comments are welcome at