Question of the day: "Dis-ease"?

I got in somewhat late last night and was tired from the meeting, but there's been something that's been bugging me more and more, and Kimball Atwood's recent posts about the distortions of language used by "complementary and alternative medicine" advocates brought it to the forefront. I first noticed this particular term being used by alties a few months ago by quantum homeopathic woo-meister supreme Lionel Milgrom, and I've been seeing it more and more, particularly in antivaccinationist circles.

I'm talking about the term "dis-ease."

Believe it or not, I'm not all-knowing about such issues, appearances notwithstanding. Consequently, I thought I'd throw it out for discussion. Where did this term come from? Does anyone know who first started using it? It appears to be a linguistic attempt to redefine disease as being the opposite of "ease" or something like that in a cutesy and, in my not-so-humble opinion, truly idiotic manner. Personally, I like a rejoinder that I saw on a discussion list that goes along the lines of: "Anyone who uses the term 'dis-ease' should be 'dis-membered.'"

One thing's for sure: If I see anyone using the term "dis-ease" in an article or blog post, it's about as reliable an indication as I've ever yet found that I'm dealing with quackery. Not "alternative" medicine. Not "complementary" medicine. Not "integrative" medicine.


And, no, I'm not "dis-sembling," either, although "dis-assembling" idiots who routinely use the term "dis-ease" would be a highly tempting "dis-traction."

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According to the handy-dandy dic built into Mac OS X, its origins are

Middle English (in the sense [lack of ease; inconvenience] ): from Old French desaise 'lack of ease,' from des- (expressing reversal) + aise 'ease.'

which, unfortunately, seems to rather support the alties. Not that this makes them any less smug and annoying.


c.1330, "discomfort," from O.Fr. desaise, from des- "without, away" + aise "ease" (see ease). Sense of "sickness, illness" first recorded 1393; the word still sometimes was used in its lit. sense early 17c.

The silly trick of pulling words apart and claiming to find hidden meanings comes from the 'deconstructionist' movement (see Wikipedia). It's a fairly reliable sign that the writer has abandoned all connection to the real world.

Does anyone know who first started using it? It appears to be a linguistic attempt to redefine disease as being the opposite of "ease" or something like that in a cutesy and, in my not-so-humble opinion, truly idiotic manner.

It's original usage, IIRC was political/sociological, not CAM... they've just hijacked a particular deconstruction that was meant for other usage. Kinda like them using "medicine".

Despite the appearance of being a spelling error, it is common in the quasimedical cults. I can't find an "original citation" but it appears to be part of the 80's type focus on postmodernist discourse yadayada...
Yes, it plays on the true origin of the word, but many cultists do not believe in disease as such, but rather imaginary imbalances, etc. I have seen this a bit in non-admitted Scientology cultists when referring to psychiatric disease...
Anyway, I succumb to logorrhea...

I was quite gruntled to read your latest post as I ate gusting breakfast. Im alway appointed when I read Respectful In-Solence.

This going back to the route of the word disease is a sneaky appeal to "ancient wisdom" by the alties.

By Freddy the Pig (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

Corretion that should have been root of the word.

Damn homonyms - are homonyms part of the "Gay Agenda"?

By Freddy the Pig (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

I first heard "dis-ease" used on an episode of "Quincy, M.E." circa 1980. This particular episode featured an honest, caring Naturopath-type earth mother practitioner (she who uttered the offending term) pitted against the cold paternalistic steel of 'Western Medicine'.

I first heard "dis-ease" used on an episode of "Quincy, M.E." circa 1980.

Mary Daly was using it for political/philosophical purposes long before that. That's the context I first saw it in.

The fact that some word meant some specific thing back in olden days is interesting and helps us understand language. But it doesn't tell us much about medicine or astronomy or any other of the natural sciences. How credible is someone who confuses linguistic history with medical research?

When I've seen the term "dis-ease" used, it's often when the altie is making some point about Positive Attitude. People get sick because of negative attitude, negative energy, negative feelings, negative expectations, and negative "imbalances" which fail to consider the spiritual aspect of life.

This view that illness is the result of psychological and spiritual problems seems to be coming from the idea that our minds create reality, or that we attract good things by thinking good thoughts. The newest manifestation is the book The Secret, but it has its ancient roots in good old ancient homeopathic and contagious "magic."

Sastra, I'm straining to remember whether they actually used the term 'dis-ease' in the movie "What the **** do we know?"--they certainly represented the spirit of the concept you describe, wherein the mind, specifically emotional/psychological states, can create 'reality'.

I looked up the "Quincy" episode--#60, aired in April 1979. Those producers never met a soap box they didn't like.

Considering that dis-ease predates the germ theory of diSEase, I'll take the more up to date form.

By Robster, FCD (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

The terms disease, disorder, disability and anomaly seem to be used interchangeably. I truly don't believe anyone actually has a complete and consistent handle on the differences between the concepts. There are no hard and fast rules, and that's why it's possible to have arguments on whether X is a disease, a disability or simply a difference.

In my opinion, something should be called a disease only if it has a direct potential to kill you (statistical reductions in life expectancy don't count) or is contagious.

This is only a guess, but I suspect that the original use of "dis-ease" does come from marketing of quackery. The FDA doesn't allow "medical" or "drug" claims in advertising except for things that have been approved by the FDA as drugs. Treating a "disease" is doing something medical. What is treating a "dis-ease"? Is that medical or non-medical? If it isn't "medical", it must be "non-medical" and hence not dis-allowed by the FDA regulations.

One of the fundamental principles of marketing is limiting the flow of information from the seller to the buyer. The more value the buyer believes they are getting, the more they are willing to pay for it. Hiding behind lots of meaningless jargon is simply good marketing for quacks.

In real medicine each unique thing has a unique name. There are not multiple names for the same disease, there is one name. The reason is to prevent confusion, so that communication can be precise. Precise communication is never the objective in quackery, so they hid behind all sorts of meaningless jargon.

The time I most remember hearing it was in trying to convince patients in a mental hospital to take care of themselves. Something along the lines of "Yes, it's called a disease. You're still an ok person, your mind is in a state of dis-ease"

Definitely cutesy.

I suspect that the term's recent popularity might be a reaction to unscientific-types' tendency to refer to things that aren't diseases as diseases. Suddenly, people who want to say scary things about autism or any other genetic condition or "disorder" can say their inaccurate tripe but say that they really meant to say that something wasn't easy, not that something is contagious.

So now, if someone points out to them that x isn't a disease, they can respond with "I meant a 'dis-ease', not a 'disease'!

The (authoritative on this issue) Oxford English Dictionary agrees with Flaky. It's worth noting, though, that given the relative paucity of writings from the time period, the word is probably much older. Being of French origin, it most likely came into English after the Norman conquest in 1066. For comparison, 'ill' came into Middle English from Old Norse and originally meant 'wicked' or 'immoral'. 'Sick' is the oldest, first attested to in Old English in the late ninth century, and having the same meaning it does today.

By Xerxes1729 (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

@Xerxes (and others), are you referring to "disease" or "dis-ease"? The latter seems to be inextricably associated with quackery today; regardless of origin. (As Liz D. has observed.)

Yes, it would be interesting to know the origin "dis-ease"; but we need to be sure which term is suggested. After all, if DD Palmer brought out the hyphenated, sales term, he may be brighter than we thought.

Perhaps I should point-out that a search for "dis-ease" can return a result for "disease" due to the vagaries of search-engines' handling of punctuation.

Huh, I was referring to "disease," and how it originates with "dis" and "ease." What do the alties mean by "dis-ease?" From Orac's write-up, I sort of gleaned (or imagined) that they were rejecting the germ theory of disease, and claiming that disease is nothing more than a sort of discomfort of the body. Furthermore, I got under the impression that by calling it "dis-ease," they were pointing out the origins of the word, and using that to support their theory.

Of course, as the old saying goes, "Etymology is not meaning." The fact that "civilization" comes from the Latin for "city" doesn't mean that farmers have no civilization.

Joe - 'Disease' has been used, historically, to mean 'a cause of discomfort or distress; a trouble, an annoyance, a grievance', but this usage was obsolete by the nineteenth century. Sometimes it was hyphenated, sometimes it wasn't.

It has also simply meant 'an absence of ease', a meaning that died out but was revived in the early twentieth century. Because we firmly understand 'disease' as referring to a sickness, it is consistently hyphenated in modern writings to distinguish 'dis-ease' from 'disease'.

I'm not entirely sure what the woo-ers are referring to with 'dis-ease', though. That's probably the point. I'm guessing the meaning they intend the term to have is close to the first one I mentioned in this comment. My guess is that this was accidental, and not an intentional attempt to revive an obsolete meaning.

By Xerxes1729 (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

yikes - that just brought back a flash of memory from my childhood...

I remember my mom dragging me to her chiropractor when I was a kid (maybe 3rd grade, so we're talking late 70s) and there being a poster on the wall about "dis-ease". All I remember was thinking "well, that's a strange definition".

A skeptic even then...especially about chiropractors...

By CanadianChick (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

Considering that dis-ease predates the germ theory of diSEase, I'll take the more up to date form.

Exactly! Are we supposed to take the etymology of malaria and influenza literally? The Germ Theory of Dis-ease Denialists would probably like you to.

If you take conspiracy literally then we are all conspirators. I would prefer not to be breathing the same air as these fools but I am stuck on the same planet.

By Chris Noble (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

Xerxes, we know about the etymology and meaning of 'disease,' somebody even quoted the OED. As Liz D (and others) observed, the hyphenated 'dis-ease' is the form favored by many quacks to further distance themselves from medicine.

Others have cited the avoidance of germ theory (e.g., in early chiro), it can also be seen as bypassing the notion that someone is "ill" in favor of saying she is not her 'usual self.' It goes along with Kimball Atwood's recent post on alties hijacking language (cited by Orac).

OT: My apologies. Orac, you recently had a story where you linked to a German web site, showing what happens with breast cancer when one believes in woo. Can you post the link again. I remember it being a German site and the pictures were pretty gross. Sorry for being off topic.

Notice, too, that 'dis-ease' is stuck at the level of phenomenology. Pathological conditions that don't cause any "lack of ease" are apparently not dis-eases.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 16 Mar 2008 #permalink

The term "dis-ease" has a long history of use among believers in holistic medicine. I first heard it used about 36 years ago by Stephen Gaskin, teacher of a kind of syncretic hippie[1] religion, founder of a commune in Tennessee, and some time later, presidential candidate of the Green Party.
I'll confess to having a great deal of affection for his group -- they are a sweet bunch of people, and quite gentle, as cults go. But it is hard to take a lot of Gaskin's ideas seriously. He would say something like "Now, most disease is just a dis-ease, and once you've centered your energy, it will just go away." The rest of us would say "Oh, wow," and have another hit. Those were the days.

[1] A pre-boomer himself, Gaskin prefers the term "beatnik."

I hosed my first link; this was intended. While we're talking about altie usage of "dis-ease", a quick search turns up an example from the late 19th century:

The future father of chiropractic believed that inflammation was the essential characteristic of disease (or dis-ease, as he later termed it).

I'm tickled to note also that D. D. Palmer

... believed that he had a gift which enabled him to sense inflammatory lesions, and to cool off inflamed tissue by pouring his excess vital magnetic force into the area of disease, much as one might pour water onto an overheated gearbox.

I can easily imagine a quack^D^D^D^D^Dholistic healer using just that metaphor in 1896. Today, I expect he would work "quantum" in there somewhere.

I first heard the term from a few patients who were 12-steppers and from patients who dabbled in alt med stuff like homeopathy back in the late '80s and early '90s. I remember because I found it annoyingly banal. Actually, I don't hear it as much today. Because of the associations I have to term, my inner-eyes tend to roll when I do hear it. It always seemed to me that people who said it thought it was clever (ugh) which somehow meant to them that it also must contain some profound insight into their difficulties.

This nonsense only applies across certain languages of course. So it only makes sense for the word disease in English and French. Portuguese, Spanish and German alties have to come up with a different theory. In Greek "dis-ease" is αÏθενεια.
I'm sure readers can come up with good deconstruction of altie terminology?