A rose by any other name… (language and medicine)

by Mary Beth Huwe

“What’s in a name?” muses Juliet Capulet as she ponders her taboo love for Romeo Montague. Does what we call something really change that thing’s essence? Though Juliet is right that a rose “would smell as sweet” if we called it a carbuncle, there is something meaningful about how we use language to name a thing. Language is powerful and reinforcing. We use it casually, and yet it still informs our experience.

Stop and smell the carbuncles.
Stop and smell the carbuncles.

There’s a language-based joke that runs around the area where I’m from, commonly told among older men. “When I was growing up,” they’ll say, “I thought my name was git wood.”  In other words, their youthful interactions with their fathers consisted of being commanded to bring wood inside for the stove. The meaning here, though different than Juliet’s question, points at the same truth… what we call something is a reflection of how we continually perceive that thing to be.

Sure, we can distance ourselves from the language we use. We are conscious beings and many are our powers, so we can easily toss blanket terms over the whole lot of our expression and intend something different from what we say. We can numb ourselves to the powers of our language. Yet, I’d argue that such speech is a contortion of the self and the mind. When possible, it seems better to name things straightforwardly, and with specificity.

This is not as easy as it might seem, and it’s why top-dog marketers and advertisers get paid the big bucks. In my field, it’s especially awkward. I am an acupuncturist and an herbalist, and those are the terms I tend to use to identify myself. My discipline is Chinese medicine, and within that I practice classical Chinese medicine. But I am not Chinese. I don’t even read or speak Chinese.

For a connection to the classical Chinese medical texts and the medicine’s cultural and philosophical roots, I rely on written translations and verbal interpretations from my preferred lecturer, Jeffrey Yuen. For a connection to the medicine itself and its unfolding, I rely on my experiences in the treatment room.

So is it really “Chinese medicine?” Well, in a certain way, absolutely. When I hear Jeffrey talk about the meaning of a word or a concept that I casually use in the practice of Chinese medicine, I am amazed at the depth and significance of cultural references that escape me entirely, having grown up in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. This is why dialogue and active listening are enriching and important in this (and every) practice.

But in a certain other way, it is not simply “Chinese medicine.” Like language, Chinese medicine is something that belongs to those who use it. Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia does not exclude me from practicing acupuncture and herbal medicine, as conceived of by the Chinese. It makes sense for me to keep listening and learning about the roots of this medical art. And while I’m doing that, I also recognize that as the many iterations of Chinese medicine are disseminated and take root in the US, the medicine will begin to change. Like any art, this is a dynamic engagement that shifts with time and practice.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) has a division called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) whose raison d’etre is to investigate and understand medical practices that are outside the mainstream. The NCCAM site estimates that about 40% of Americans, “use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine for specific conditions or overall well-being.” (Source.)

NCCAM also asks “what’s in a name?” and defines the terms complementary, alternative, and integrative as applied to healthcare. How these terms and classifications change – indeed, how we change them – as the face of healthcare evolves in this country, is up to us all.

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