Wednesday, February 2, 2011

what's in a name?

I've recently started teaching a group of people who work for one of the national French healthcare agencies and it has started me thinking about the differences between health care in France and Canada and the different ways we refer and react to illness. Currently most medication, including over-the-counter items such as ibuprofen and aspirin, are reimbursed to varying degrees by the sécurité sociale, which is why doctors give out prescriptions for 4 bottles when you get sick, so you can stock up (and have it paid for!). When I mention that this is not the case in Canada, that we actually have to pay for aspirin and that we purchase it without prescription, the French usually start talking about the hazards of auto-médication, never mind that it is exactly the thing that they are doing with their four leftover bottles of aspirin! I think I'll save my ideas about medication and vitamins for another post, but for now I wanted to talk about the names we give illnesses.

It has struck me that the French refer to illnesses by their scientific (and I'm guessing Latin) names, while we tend to make reference to the thing that wrong in common terms. The result is that getting sick in French sounds way worse than in English, according to me. Here are a few examples:

rhinopharyngite – common cold

torticoli – sore neck

gastro-entérite – stomach flu

angine et pharyngite – Tonsillitis or strep throat (or just plain sore throat)

otite - middle ear infection

pyélonéphrite - urinary tract infection (kidney infection)

"I have a rhinopharyngite" sounds so much more ominous than "I have a cold" doesn't it? It sounds like it might be worth a trip to the doctor! And here the debate starts.


  1. I enjoyed this post thanks. The first time I was told I had a rhinopharyngite I thought I had some serious illness! The French always are staying home from work with gastros and angines and I do think that it does sound so much worse in french. Good observation.

  2. It does sound worse! When I first came to France I thought that the name for a common cold was "un rhume" and I couldn't figure out why people thought I was just talking about a runny nose. Ah, the subtleties!