Science Corner: Where the Viruses Have No Name

With all respect to the bard, there is power in a name — why else would Juliet consider changing hers? That’s why the WHO proposed new practices for naming a newly emerged disease. Diseases are often named after the place they were found, a significant animal vector, or some other notable feature connected to its discovery. Name choice can have negative consequences for the original owner of the name. The residents of Hendra, Queensland aren’t thrilled that their town has a namesake virus. The pigs couldn’t complain about swine flu, but the name impacted pork trade even though it was not a transmission route. The Sin Nombre (Spanish for “without name”) virus was so dubbed after multiple suggestions were rejected out of respect for the fact that no one wanted to be associated with it.

This level of respect as a matter of policy is honorable. It also sacrifices some of the power of a short, memorable, distinctive name, a power which made the traditional naming practice so attractive. Healthcare professionals and research scientists obviously benefit from those more powerful names, as it makes communication within their disciplines easier. Does the public also benefit? That’s less clear. When the name clearly communicates something about the cause of the disease, as with monkey pox, there is arguably a benefit in the compact presentation of information. Yet the benefit can erode; malaria (bad air) and especially the common cold could use new names to reflect our current understanding of their causes.

What naming conventions and challenges exist in your field? Where do you need to be sensitive to the concerns of those outside your field when coining a name?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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