Prostate free Fridays


The other day I dropped into a supermarket with my sig other to pick up some laundry detergent. I decided I wanted something less harmful to the environment. After browsing through the vast selection on hand, I discovered a brand whose pleasantly green label promised a combination of vigorous cleaning action and ecological rectitude. “Oh look,” I said. “This detergent is prostate free.”

Now I’m prone to the occasional solecism, malapropism or sheer, hand-flapping howler, and this one brought a blush to my face as two or three other nearby shoppers looked my way with arched eyebrows. Sig other was swift on the uptake: “Lovely. It should work quite well on my sweater. You know, the one with all the colours of the rectum.”

There is just no avoiding the fact that the insertion of a medical term into a conversation is inherently funny, either due to its peculiar-sounding Greek or Latin root or especially when it refers to a taboo body part. I know. Just try saying “prostate” loudly in public, even in a hospital corridor. The word has a straightforward etymology, entering our language from the identical word in French, which in turn evolved from the Latin prostata, which itself echoes the Greek word prostates, “one standing in front,” a reference to the prostate gland’s position at the base of the bladder.

Men’s complexes over the state of their prostate gland (which, like many things with men, may be traced back to generalized genitalia anxiety) have produced a rich mine of humour. Here is just one example grabbed off the web:

“What is the difference between a prostate and a garden hose? There’s a vas deference.”

Which doesn’t even make any sense anatomically. But it still gets a laugh.

“Rectum” is another squirmer, even in its Latin guise not quite suitable for civilized company. “Rectum” is derived from the Latin intestinum rectum, “straight intestine,” in contrast to the convolution of the rest of the bowels. The comic overtones of this word and its cognates have not escaped the attention of humorists of every variety. Consider this old Woody Allen joke:

“They tried to expel me for cheating on my Ethics exam, when all I did was look into the rectitude of the boy next to me.”

I am digressing, but that is the point here. Computers too have been known to produce some good howlers. If you’ve ever used Google Translate you’ll know what I mean. But automated translation has improved a great deal in the past twenty years. Way back in the 1980s I saved an article about a state-of-the-art package being used by a major German auto maker to translate one of their technical manuals into English. Things got a bit out of hand. The German word for “suction pipe” (Saugleitung) became “pig gliding” (through misreading this compound word as Sau + Gleitung instead of Saug + Leitung). The overactive dictionary also turned Kathoden (cathodes) into “cat testicles.” German veterinarians would wince.

Medical terms have shown up in some limericks. Here is a good one:

Whenever he got in a fury, a
Dyspeptic from Upper Manchuria
Had pseudocyesis,
And haemotoporphyrimuria.

Too much to tweet, but great fun to share with medical students. If you haven’t Googled the terminology yet: pseudocyesis is false pregnancy, disdiadochokinesis is the loss of the ability to perform rapid alternate movements, and haematoporphyrimuria is the presence of porphyrins in the urine. Our poor Manchurian would have presented a rather pitiful sight with an enlarged abdomen, morning sickness in addition to heartburn, the loss of the ability to wind up his watch, and discoloured urine.

And here is a limerick for the pharmacologically minded:

There was an old lady from Leicester,
Whose numerous ailments obsessed her.
She found no allure
In a medical cure,
And sedatives simply depressed her.

Not leaving our topic too far behind, I am reminded of an anecdote about the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson, which I had occasion to post about a couple of years ago. As a young man Tennyson was afflicted with a painful attack of piles. He visited a youthful but well-known proctologist and was so successfully treated that for many years he had no further trouble. However, after he had become a famous poet and had been raised to the peerage, he suffered a further attack. Revisiting the proctologist, he expected to be recognized as the former patient who had become Britain’s Poet Laureate. The proctologist, however, gave no sign of recognition. It was only when the baronial drawers had been dropped and the patient had bent over for examination that the proctologist exclaimed, “Ah, Tennyson.”


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