Archive for March, 2016

Illnesses in metaphor


I just read a line in a news article that made me wonder about the connotations of different types of disease in our language.

The article is about a sex video which was made against the wishes of at least one of the participants, and shared on a popular website. It ends with this quote from a lawyer:

I know some like to call it viral, but in this case, it was cancer.

His meaning is clear in the context: we talk about things going “viral” on the Internet in a value-neutral or even value-positive way: it just means lots of people are watching, reading, sharing. It is exciting for something you make to “go viral”.

But the popularity of this video, which the participants had requested be taken down, was not value-neutral or positive. It was damaging.

Which brings us to the language used by the lawyer. What’s particularly interesting is that, at a gut level, I get it – it makes sense – but intellectually I’m trying to work out why.

I mean, nobody likes to get sick. But viruses have just as much potential as cancers to make our lives miserable, and to kill us or those we love. So why the hating on cancer in this social-media metaphor, while viruses get off easy?

I think it comes down to personal experience. (As always.)

We all have experience of getting a bit of a cold, and getting over it. Sure, viruses in the news are alarming and scary – like Zika or Ebola a bad flu pandemic, but our personal experience of viruses is normally of a mild inconvenience. It’s the infectiousness – the ease and speed of the spread – that is prominent. So that’s what gets translated into the metaphor.

But cancer? You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has an indifferent experience of cancer. Some people beat it – more and more every year, thanks to medical science. But the cancer, and especially its spread, is invariably the bad-guy, the boogeyman, the awful thing that you feel powerless to stop.



* This blog post is about the language in that last line, so I’m not going to get into the case itself. If you really want to learn more, here is the article I’m referring to.