Friday, April 29, 2016

Metaphors in Medicine - Fertilization - A Personified Battle

Over the years, I've heard bumbling parents utter the phrase "Daddy planted a seed in Mommy" in films, television series, and who knows where else. It's become a cliché.

Last year, a friend of mine was expecting. She wanted a girl and the father wanted a boy. One evening, we were out on the street and several of the father's friends came up to us and started talking about the future baby. The conversation was full of macho phrases like "Prove you're a man and make a boy." Even though the guys were essentially joking around, the expressions still struck me.

My friend had a baby girl, by the way.

I am a strong believer that all jokes hold some truth, a glimpse into the psyche of the joke-teller. Even though these friends were joking around about making a baby boy, their words revealed an underlying belief that the man is in charge of selecting the baby's sex. And the baby's sex depends on or is a reflection of his manhood.

Of course, there is some scientific data to back this idea up. A woman has XX chromosomes whereas a man has XY chromosomes. Thus, all women's eggs will have an X chromosome whereas men's spermatozoa will have either an X or a Y. Up to here, that's all science.

However, what about the lexis surrounding reproduction? Dozens and dozens of articles I've skimmed through repeat the same tropes: The woman is a vessel. The woman's egg is a passive player, waiting for the sperm to reach it. The man is the active player. His spermatozoa swims and races to reach the egg.

It's been commonly taught to us that the first sperm cell to reach the egg is the winner. It decides if the baby will be a boy or a girl. It gets to fertilize the egg.

However, have you ever seen a video of fertilization? That ovum is surrounded by sperm cells!

So, is it really a matter of being the first one to win the race? Or perhaps fertilization is based on complimentary chemical reactions? The answer is chemistry, of course!

Have a look at this website from the Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago for a step-by-step explanation of the fertilization process.

So, it seems fertilization is infested with metaphors (plant a seed, the woman is a vessel) and something else: personification. Personification is a technique in which you grant human qualities to non-humans. These can be animals (the cat smiled with satisfaction) or objects (the dark towers sneered down at me).

If you have a look above, you'll see several instances of personification marked in italics. As with metaphors, personifying things helps bring them closer to us: it makes them more relatable. Nevertheless, some articles go a bit overboard. Just take a gander at the website What to Expect and their explanation of the fertilization process. For example (bold added):

But only one of those sperm will be crowned the victor in the frenzied fight to the fertilization finish, and it's a battle that's fraught with dangers lurking at every twist and turn of your reproductive tract (no one said it's easy being a sperm).

This website not only illustrates personification of the sperm, but it also incorporates another well-used technique in medicine: battle language. I will make a future post centered on battle language, but let me quickly mention that it is persistent in medical speech: you fight a disease, the virus attacks, you win or lose the battle with cancer...

Fertility is no less. The website What to Expect delights in giving us the following battle metaphors: fortify the troops, call in the transport unit, gather steam, check the coordinates, battle to the finish, mission accomplished.

It seems battle expressions and personification serve to make the text more pleasant to follow, less "sciency", and perhaps bring it closer to the reader and make it thus more relatable. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hey, Nimrod! - Etymology and Shifts in Meaning

"Hey, nimrod! How's it going?"

That wasn't very nice, was it? Chances are that if you greet someone like that you might just get a punch in the face, or at least a sour look. However, "nimrod" wasn't always an insult--it is actually a biblical name.

According to the Bible, Nimrod was the great-grandson of Noah, and the first person to play a large active role after the great flood. He was an expert hunter and the ruler of Shinar. Shinar is a biblical geographical region in Mesopotamia which has been historically linked to Babylonia. In fact, "The Land of Nimrod" is used in the Book of Micah (Micah 5:6) as a synonym for Mesopotamia or Assyria.

Although the Bible doesn't clearly state this, it is common belief in both Hebrew and Christian traditions that Nimrod was the leader who oversaw construction of the Tower of Babel. This connection was made mainly because the location of the tower fell in the heart of his kingdom.

With all this information, I can assume that Nimrod was considered an important and powerful man in biblical history. He was a mighty warrior and skilled hunter, the ruler of Shinar... 
So how did his name come to mean "idiot" or "inept"? You won't believe the answer...

In a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Bugs’s fumbling nemesis Elmer Fudd as a hunter on the rabbit’s trail, the carrot-chomping coney sardonically refers to Fudd as a nimrod — insulting him by derisively comparing him to a biblical personage renowned for his hunting skills. Apparently, later generations of Looney Tunes fans who hadn’t kept up with their Scripture picked up on Bugs’s attitude without understanding the ironic allusion, and the word acquired a new meaning, while its original sense faded into the background.[1]

So, it seems we can thank Looney Tunes for this (unintentional) shift in meaning. Basically, Bugs Bunny's use of sarcasm equates to him saying something like: "Nice going, Einstein!"--where "Einstein" is used as a sarcastic form of "genius." As the name Nimrod was not well-known among its viewers, the meaning shifted over time.

However, just how true is this allegation? There are those who believe Bugs Bunny wasn't being sarcastic when he called Elmer Fudd "Nimrod." There are those who believe Bugs was using "Nimrod" directly as a synonym for "idiot," much in the same way Americans use "Benedict Arnold" for "traitor."

The reasoning is simple: let's suppose it was Nimrod who oversaw construction of the Tower of Babel. Some interpretations see Nimrod as an arrogant tyrant who ordered the massive tower to reach the heavens and make a name for the people. Some describe him as a rebel who defied God by constructing the gargantuan monument. The endeavor didn't end well...

Up until that point, the bible claims all humans spoke the same language, but God decided to put an end to the Tower of Babel absurdity by causing people to speak different languages and scattering them over the globe. This event is known as the "confusion of tongues."

So who was responsible for all this confusion and scattering? Nimrod, the ruler, of course. He dared defy God, and he was an idiot for doing so. Thus, some believe the Looney Tunes script purposefully used the name Nimrod as an insult--no sarcasm needed.

Which is the true explanation for this shift in meaning? We may never know...


By the way, I would also like to point out that other interpretations of the Bible see the Tower of Babel as a cradle of civilization, and the "confusion of tongues" not as a punishment, but as a way of explaining cultural differences around the world. This interpretation immediately reminds me of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, where the author gives interesting explanations of how some things came to be (how the elephant got its trunk, how the camel got its hump, etc.).


[1] Daily Writing Tips - Accidental Shifts in Meaning

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review - The Graveyard Book

When I came across The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman it sounded so, so good! Just read this premise and tell me if it isn't right up my alley!

After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

This is a story about a boy raised by ghosts! Ghosts! It's The Jungle Book meets Casper! Right? Right?

I wanted to love this book--I really did. But I just couldn't. It's a shame because the dark topic interests me, and the characters were sympathetic. The main character Bod--short for Nobody--Owens is a smart and likable child and as a reader you really care for him. His undead guardian, Silas, is a delicious mystery who quietly dominates every page he's on.

I think my main issue with The Graveyard Book is that I expected a continuous story about how Bod Owens grows up amidst ghosts and other supernatural creatures. Instead, each chapter jumps ahead several years in his life. Each one reads as its own short story, a more or less closed off adventure, and that made the whole book feel disconnected. I know Gaiman was taking a The Jungle Book approach to this story, but it just didn't work for me.

I guess I should've known better, since I read Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book several times when I was a teen. Even so, I think The Graveyard Book initially promised something more linear due to how the story is presented in the first chapter: readers are given a terrible crime, a bloodthirsty villain, an innocent victim and a slew of ghosts to protect him. It felt like the perfect setup for one continuous adventure. Instead, we read one chapter focused on how he makes a living friend. Another focuses on how he is kidnapped by goblins. Another focuses on him going to school with the living... In the end, he always returns to the graveyard and to his dead companions, so each chapter has very little impact.

On a positive note, the best moments for me are, without a doubt, when Bod interacts with other living people. In those scenes, you can see how much of an impact life among the dead has had on the boy. The ghosts teach him certain otherworldly abilities, such as fading, and he uses these to his advantage when he's in danger. Perhaps my favorite story is when he attempts to go to a normal school (aka "for the living") and encounters a bully. The way Bod quietly solves his problems is admirable.

There are other bigger and much more dangerous problems Bod cannot solve on his own, and here his guardian Silas takes over--or others such as the witch Liza or the teacher Miss Lupescu.

However, I have a couple issues with this. At the beginning of the book, the ghosts Mr and Mrs Owens adopt Bod. The cemetery dwellers assign Silas as Bod's guardian because Silas is the only one who can step out into the human world (in order to bring Bod food, clothing, etc.). So what do the Owens do during the entire book? Not much, really. Except for the first chapter, they rarely appear, rarely interact with Bod, and are rarely mentioned. I ended up wondering if it wouldn't have been better to just ignore them and hand Bod over to Silas.

My second issue involving Bod's caretakers occurs near the end of the book. Silas and Miss Lupescu go on a quest to defeat the main evil-doers in the story. This part of the plot was so rushed and so glossed over that the significance of events was lost to me. In my opinion, the events involving these two characters--events which lead up to the final battle--could have been shown more clearly so as not to confuse readers.

The ending is highly predictable and the final battle is filled with clichés that I won't begin to list. Let me just point out that the worst cliché, in my opinion, is when the super villainous villain has the upper hand and is about to off our hero, but before going in for the fatal blow he decides to waste time revealing every single important plot point and evil plan to the hero who, once he has all the information, in one fell swoop vanquishes the evil-doer.

I really hate that cliché.

As with Coraline, also by Neil Gaiman, the ending to The Graveyard Book felt rushed in comparison to the rest of the book. I was expecting so much more. It physically pains me. This could have been so great. It had so much potential! Unfortunately, The Graveyard Book gets two and a half Pirates.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Books I Love - I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend is one of my all-time favorite books. Key word: book. Forget about that movie. What movie? There wasn't any movie!

(Actually, this novel by Richard Matheson has not one, not two, but four film adaptations...)

Here is the book description from Goodreads:

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth... but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville's blood.

By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilisation. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn.

How long can one man survive like this?

I Am Legend is the best vampire novel I have ever read (step aside Mr. Stoker!), and it's all due to the atmosphere. The author creates a suffocating environment charged with loss, guilt and helplessness, in which we follow Neville through his day-to-day repairing his home, scavenging for food, and hunting down and killing as many vampires as possible before the sun sets.

Once the final rays of light vanish from the sky, Neville's nightmare deepens. The vampires thirsty for his blood are neighbors--neighbors who know his name and pound on his door and beckon him to come out. It's enough to drive you insane. And that's just what happens to Neville.

Grasping for his sanity, he turns to science. Here came the best part of the novel: Neville attempts to find a medical explanation for vampires. From the loathing of garlic to the fear of religious symbols, Neville researches and teaches himself about biology and technical equipment in an attempt to uncover reasons--or a cure--for this worldwide outbreak. He snags vampires and takes samples from them, analyzes their blood, and finds something very peculiar...

I Am Legend is a compelling view into the psyche of the last man on Earth. The fact that you, the reader, are all alone with Neville for the vast majority of the novel sucks you that much deeper into his world of despair. Is fighting worth it? What's there left to fight for? What's life worth, if it's surrounded by death? If the future only holds death?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Why Women Are Hysterical - Etymology

"You're just being hysterical."

We've all heard it. Common in everyday English, "hysteria" refers to uncontrolled levels of emotion. It can have positive connotations, as when we refer to something being very funny (hysterical), but it can also have negative connotations, mainly towards women.

Even though now it feels insulting to be referred to as "hysterical," the term originally derives from medicine and was once used as a formal diagnosis.

"Hysterical" (and all its variations) has its origins in Ancient Greek. The Greek word hystera means "womb" or "uterus." In Classic Greece, it was believed that a "wandering womb" or displaced uterus caused emotional problems in women: hysteria.

Ancient Egyptian documents such as the Kahun Papyrus, dating from 1900 BC, already mention psychological disorders derived from movements of the uterus. The very father of medicine Hippocrates was the first to coin "hysteria." For centuries (well into the Renaissance), "hysteria" was applied as a medical term to refer to practically any disorder in women. Even though medicine was theoretically based on empirical knowledge and observation, social roles and stigmas were crucial in shaping the diagnosis of women's diseases.

In the time of Hippocrates, women virtually had no rights and went from being controlled by their fathers to being controlled by their husbands. In the very cradle of democracy, women couldn't vote or even attend assemblies. Natural aspects of women's biology such as menstruation and hormonal changes were ignored or completely misunderstood. Famous philosophers such as Aristotle claimed women were unfit for education or politics because of their "bad biology."

So, due to all these social factors--and contradicting the inherent empirical nature of medicine--practically any ailment that befell a woman was considered hysteria--a result of a wandering womb. The term "wandering womb" is literal. The Greeks literally believed the uterus could move around inside a woman's body. For example, if the uterus wandered to the lungs, it could cause death through "hysterical suffocation."

Treatment for the wandering womb could be tortuous. Some physicians applied honey or other sweet-smelling substances to the vulva in an attempt to lure the uterus back to its original place. Others made the women chew strong or disgusting substances, from cloves of garlic to excrements in an attempt to frighten the uterus away from the upper torso. In some cases, physicians performed a hysterectomy, a total removal of the uterus. Other times, the "disorder" was attributed to a dry or bored uterus, and the woman was given a prescription of marriage, sex, and childbearing to keep it occupied.

In more recent years, the term "hysteria" has been dropped from the medical field in favor of other, more concrete terms. Medicine has become more specific and (finally!) more empirical regarding women's diseases. Even so, gender, sexism and society still play a very important role in understanding women. Just think about all the jokes you've heard about PMS.

In 1931, the gynecologist Robert Frank coined the term "premenstrual tension" and in 1953 the physician Katharina Dalton expanded on his theory and coined "premenstrual syndrome," colloquially known as "PMS." In medicine, this term refers to the physical and mental changes a woman might undergo before menstruating. In everyday life, however, PMS has been used many times to have a laugh. From sitcoms to web comics, the natural biology of women's bodies is still treated as a beast, as something grazing the mystical and unknown.

And it's not just the nature of the beast, but also the treatment. I'm sure we've all heard some sort of "She's bitchy because she hasn't been laid" comment sometime in our life. Although it's a joke, all jokes hide some underlying truth or belief, and it seems sex is still the prescription for a troublesome womb. It makes me wonder just how far we've come in these four thousand years.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Review - Coraline

Coraline is one of those names I've heard for what feels like ages, but I never knew what the book was about.

I mean, literally no idea.

Ever since I read (and immensely enjoyed) Anansi Boys, I've been on a quest to get my hands on as many Neil Gaiman books as possible. It was about time, too!

Perhaps the best way to describe Coraline is creepy. I wouldn't go so far as to classify it as horror, more like a creepy fantasy. The heroine, Coraline, moves into a new house and she's immensely bored. Her parents don't have much time for her, so she spends the last days of summer vacation investigating the home and getting to know her neighbors--and they're a colorful lot.

But when Coraline discovers a small door into a walled-off apartment in the house, the story takes a dark turn. She crawls through the passageway and discovers another home almost like hers. I say almost, because this home is inhabited by the other mother--a charming woman identical to her mother with the exception of her long-fingered hands and her unsettling eyes. They are two big black buttons.

At first, the other mother (as well as the button-eyed other father) seem perfect. They're cheery and thoughtful and pamper Coraline with all the love and attention she feels she's been missing from her real parents. However, the story takes a sharp turn into creepiness when the other mother tells Coraline that she only has to do one little thing to be happy forever...

"It won't hurt."
When Coraline's real parents go missing, she's forced to confront her fears and embark on a quest to save them before the other mother takes control over her.

I really liked the concept and the creepiness behind the story, especially the part about the button eyes. The overall moral was also a nice, homely one. However, the action felt rushed, like the author wasn't giving us enough time for the plot points to set in. Maybe it's because it's a children's book and sometimes less is more, but I was yearning for just a little bit more.

Even so, being a kid's book, I think it's actually quite scary as is. Maybe a little too scary for some!

After reading the book, I decided to watch the film and was pleasantly surprised by the adaptation. The film incorporates several changes to the plot, the main one being the introduction of a new character, the little boy Wybie.

The reasoning behind including a new character in the film adaptation is so that Coraline doesn't spend the majority of the movie talking to herself. You see, there are many scenes in the book where she is alone with only her thoughts as company (there are also many scenes where she speaks with the cat, who is another important character). Internal dialogue works well on the written page, but on the big screen it could become an issue. An unobtrusive friendly character such as Wybie did the trick, in my opinion--and the appearance of the other Wybie is one of the strongest points for me in the film.

Another great novelty in the film is that we learn a tad more backstory about the other mother. Her motives and techniques are clearer from the beginning of the film. I found the book somewhat lacking on this point.

The ending to the movie was a bit of a letdown, though. To me it felt like it had fallen prey to Hollywoodish clichés and there was really no need to change the witty heroic and original ending which appears in the book. I was highly satisfied with the original ending, as it reminded me of old fairy tales where slyness and trickery save the hero. The film adaptation, on the other hand, ends with a gaudy KA-BOOM along with a dose of deus ex machina.

Overall, I give Coraline three and a half Pirates.

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