The Disease That Shall Not Be Named
LEPROSY. TUBERCULOSIS. SYPHILIS. CANCER. AIDS. DIARRHEA.
There are some illnesses that we don't like talking about. Today, we are much more open about it, but once, not that long ago really, the names of these illnesses were verboten. You did not mention them. Doctors might not tell the patient what they were suffering from. Media would avoid saying their names. You used a nickname or euphemism if you have to talk about them, avoiding the dreaded name. You just never brought them up. They tended to be illnesses that cannot be cured and/or are transmitted sexually. As medical science has advanced and public attitudes to sex have loosened, they have become more acceptable, but some, most often AIDS, are still treated as taboo. Another variant are diseases that involve some embarrassing biological function or body part, such as diarrhea on the list abovenote
, or pretty much any other ailment involving the backside or groin.
Cancer is a special case. There was a time, back before anesthesia and asepsis, when most cancers were never diagnosed. Doctors could easily recognize breast, cervical, and vaginal cancers from an external examination, but without surgery, X-rays, or medical laboratories, they couldn't detect internal cancers. Because of this, cancer was seen as mainly a woman's disease, and one that could affect any woman: certainly nothing to be ashamed about in any event. By the early 20th century, however, X-rays and surgery had made it possible to diagnose almost any cancer. Unfortunately, it didn't allow them to do anything about most cancers, since patients often didn't see their doctors until the condition was terminal. Cancer therefore became synonymous with "death sentence" and the word gained a sinister reputation. Even now, when half of all cancers can be cured, the word is considered much more malevolent than it would have been in the early 1800s, possibly due to the fact that, while half of all cancers can be cured, the treatment itself, usually involving surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and other painful procedures, can be pretty hellish in their own right. This is why modern readers of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novel Doctor Thorne
are often shocked when Trollope steps away from the church politics for a moment to frankly describe a woman dying of breast cancer, described as such. In his time, it wouldn't have been shocking.
It's also a way for an artist to hedge their bets in case they got something wrong
, as they can't portray X Condition wrong if they never say
it's X Condition.
Another aspect of the taboo is that many people consider it Tempting Fate
to talk about diseases, in the same sense as Speak of the Devil
and The Scottish Trope
. And as the close associates of the asbestos miner who died of cancer also died of cancer after talking about the fact that he had cancer, and plague victims died after going to the market and talking to people about who had the plague, and everyone who gossiped about Phil having cholera as they drew water from the well next to the dump came down with cholera...cue centuries of the Association Fallacy
Almost the inverse of an Incurable Cough of Death
, in that there the illness is ill
-defined, thus vague. Here it is known, but kept vague.
In some languages, like Dutch
, names of diseases make up most of the language's profanity.
See also Secretly Dying
(which this trope often entails,) Never Say "Die"
, Victorian Novel Disease
, Ill Girl
, Littlest Cancer Patient
, The Scottish Trope
, Ambiguous Disorder
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Anime & Manga
- An interesting variation occurs in the Rurouni Kenshin: Seishohen OVA, where Kenshin and later Kaoru suffer from an unknown disease. Fans either call it "Super Tuberculosis" or speculate that it may be syphilis based on the symptoms, but it's likely either a specific unmentionable or one they just made up. In either case what exactly it is never gets brought up, but seeing as it's set in late 1800s Japan this may be justified by the setting.
- 13th squad captain Jushiro Ukitake from Bleach has a never-named illness that may have cause his hair to lose its color (his eyebrows are black, the rest is white), leads to him laying in bed sick a lot, and occasionally makes him cough up blood. A Fan Nickname of his is "Captain Tuberculosis."
- Tubercolosis, incidentally, is not known to dye your hair in Real Life.
- In an SBS of One Piece, Oda Eiichiro was asked if a disease he had mentioned in the series was real. He noted that, yes, it definitely is real, but the name and general idea was tweaked a bit to sound fictional. Apparently, in the manga business, some terms/diseases are frowned upon for being "too real."
- Hyatt from Excel♥Saga suffers from some unknown disease that causes her to vomit blood and die on a regular basis. She always gets better, though.
- Jack Chick's tract "Wounded Children" contains an odd variant: A Depraved Homosexual speaks of his lover dying of "cancer", which a footnote tells us means "AIDS".
- Jerkass Has a Point: it wasn't unusual in the 80's for people with HIV to say they had cancer, if they preferred people not ask questions about how they got infected. In most cases, it's technically not even a lie, since Karposi's Sarcoma is an opportunistic skin cancer AIDS victims tend to die from (the infamous black lesions).
- There's an autobiography (in graphic novel form) called Stitches, about this guy's crapsack childhood. At one point his parents don't tell him that he has and is about to undergo surgery for throat cancer. He finds out by accident a while later, and when he asks why he wasn't told they tell him it's because he "didn't need to know."
Films — Live-Action
- An amazing example in 1939 Tearjerker Dark Victory, which uses words like "glioma", "growth", and "malignant", and kills off the Ill Girl at the end, but never says "cancer" or "brain cancer".
- Even pregnancy can fall to this. In one of the Benji movies, Tiffany (the dog) was referred to as being "ill" when they meant "about to have puppies".
- In Moulin Rouge!, Satine has consumption (tuberculosis), but this is kept from her until near the end of the movie when she dies from it onstage.
- At the end of Forrest Gump, Jenny tells Forrest that she's "sick". It's never said what she had, only that it's a virus and was terminal. Given the disapproving tone surrounding Jenny's Bohemian lifestyle outside of Forrest's orbit, and that Jenny could be seen as experiencing the "bad side" of decades versus Forrest's hopeful one, it was often assumed the 1980s setting meant it would be AIDS. An especially sad case as Jenny was still incredibly unsure of herself when she left Forrest the second time, before Forrest Jr. was born, and a relapse occurred during their life apart. Also leads to some complaints that verge on Reality Is Unrealistic since the fact that neither Forrest nor their son seem to be infected can happen if an infected person is careful, and straight men are at low (not zero) risk of infection through sex. The worst part is that Jenny exhibits no symptoms of her disease while dying other than feeling very, very tired...making her appear to be the physically weakest human being in history.
- In MirrorMask, it's never said outright what is afflicting Helena's mother, but the implication is pretty clear that it's a brain tumor (it's also stated explicitly in the companion book).
- Secrets & Lies: The cause of Monica's infertility is never mentioned, although some have speculated that it might have been endometriosis.
- In And The Band Played On, about the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, this is a plot point. When Richard Gere's character, a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of Michael Bennett, dies, his obituary reads that he died after a "long illness," leading Dr. Don Francis, the protagonist, to object that "This could be the first deadly epidemic in history of which nobody officially died."
- In a Monty Python's Flying Circus animation sequence, we have an enchanted prince who gets a spot on his face, ignores it and dies of cancer, but the word "gangrene" was very obviously dubbed over "cancer" in a very different (as in, male as opposed to female) voice. It can be heard as intended in And Now for Something Completely Different.
- Good Times was the first time STD (then called VD) was mentioned in a (US) fiction TV show, but they never really said what it was or how it was spread, just that JJ's ex had VD and he should get tested, along with Anvilicious speeches about VD (given the time frame, they almost certainly meant gonorrhea).
- During the final season, Willona wants to protect little Penny from the facts of life, suggesting to her adopted daughter that her 12-year-old pregnant friend had simply contracted the "Stomach Mumps." Terms related to teen pregnancy are freely exchanged between Wilnona and Florida, as the two bitterly argue about whether to tell Penny the truth (Willona is forced to when Penny is nearly sexually assaulted in the hallway).
- Another STD example on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, paired with Getting Crap Past the Radar, seeing as how this was a family show airing at 8PM. In the series first episode, prostitute Myra comes to see Dr. Mike about a "female problem". Later, Dr. Mike tells Hank, owner of the local brothel, that Myra needs to be "chaste" for several weeks. When he complains about the loss of revenue, she warns him that he'll lose a lot more if she has to treat his customers as well. In a later episode, Hank asks why Dr. Mike has been oblivious to the fact that her sister Marjorie is ill—"That husband of hers left her with more that anyone suspects". Mike realizes what the problem is and gently tells her sister, "It's not your fault, he gave it to you", then offers to give her an injection of silver nitrate in order to clear up the infection. Given the treatment mentioned, it's obvious that Marjorie's unfaithful husband has given her gonorrhea.
- The Hogan Family: The first use of the word "condom" and what it's for on a (US) fiction TV show was in a Very Special Episode during the series' second season (episode titled "Bad Timing," when Valerie told David to use a condom if he had sex with his girlfriend. The episode aired with a content warning.
- Unlike many other sitcoms, The Hogan Family also unashamedly addressed AIDS in one of the last episodes of the series, where David's best buddy Rich contracts AIDS. The episode shared Rich's last days and ends with his death.
- On Happy Days when Chachi asked for Mrs. Cunningham's blessing for he and Joanie to get married he said he "had to" marry her, so Mrs. C thought he and Joanie were "in trouble" — that he had knocked her up. But no, he "had to" because he loved her so much.
- Non-disease example: on Sex and the City, Charlotte mentions that her Jewish boyfriend has relatives who died in the Holocaust, a word she says at least 20 decibels lower than the rest of the sentence. She may have also done the same about Samantha's cancer.
- After Scott dumps Buffy Faith sees him with another girl. She gets a brainwave, goes up to him and claims the sexually transmitted diseases she got from him were clearing up, getting some measure of revenge for what he did to Buffy.
- A season 4 episode of The Golden Girls has Sophia volunteering at the hospital. One of her favorite people to visit with is a young boy who is a patient. She encourages him by telling him, "One day, they'll find a cure." Considering that it's 1988, it could have been AIDS, or it could have been cancer, with a comment about his blood getting messed up by a bad transfusion heavily implies the former (the story took place right at the same time as the Ryan White story.)
- There was a sketch in The Kids in the Hall where Scott Thompson played a celebrity who denied rumors that he was gay. The narrator claims that he kept denying the rumors up until the day he died of AIDS. The camera shows his body at the funeral and his corpse says out of the side of his mouth, "It was cancer."
- Only Fools and Horses: In "Sickness and Wealth," Del is worried that he might be suffering from a certain disease, and subsequent dialogue makes it obvious that he's talking about AIDS. The disease was still pretty taboo in 1989, hence why it isn't mentioned by name, but the episode shows quite a surprising degree of AIDS awareness, most notably the fact that it isn't—as was widely considered to be the case at the time—something that only gay men contract.
- On Revolution episode Captain Trips, Rachel is listing off diseases that the patients have other than the manufactured one they're all suffering from, and in a real sign of what's accepted in modern society versus what's still not, she says in a normal voice that two of them have Bipolar and Epilepsy, but whispers when she says that the third woman is an Alcoholic.
- In Meet the Feebles, the doctor ominously tells Harry he's caught "The Big One". This trope is averted when we find out near the end of the movie that he meant myxomatosis.
- Though, for a rabbit, myxomatosis is a Big One indeed.
- In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the doctors never tell Big Daddy or his wife that he has cancer, telling them instead that he has a spastic colon.
- Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts was incredibly controversial in its time merely for referring to congenital syphilis, even though the disease was never named outright.
- Angels In America uses the aforementioned Roy Cohn inversion. Prior occasionally plays the trope straight by saying that he's "sick" and "diseased". While he is able to admit to his boyfriend what he has, he does fuss around before spitting it out.
- In Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, the mother mentioned that someone had tuberculosis, but said in in a quiet, hushed tone.
- In Passion by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine, nobody, not even the doctor, explains what Fosca's disease is.
- In Dead End, Martin's ex-girlfriend Francey reveals she is "sick" when he tries to kiss her on the mouth. It is only hinted at that she was forced into prostitution and dying from syphilis. (The play does describe her as "an obvious whore of the lowest class"; for obvious reasons, this doesn't come across so clearly in the movie.)
- In the Arthur episode "Grandpa Dave's Memory Album," it is shown that Arthur's grandfather is suffering from memory loss, but no disease (such as Alzheimer's, dementia or brain cancer) is mentioned.
- When Terry Pratchett gave the 2010 Dimbleby Lecture, he mentioned that Richard Dimbleby (after whom the lectures are named) broke a taboo by admitting he was dying of cancer (almost invoking this trope by name). He went on to say that Alzheimer's and Dementia is now in the same category.
- When doctors diagnose a person with scabies, it is named with the technical name of scabiosis. Rather obvious in English, but not so in other languages (Spanish "sarna" vs. "escabiosis").
- Isaac Asimov contracted AIDS during heart surgery from tainted blood, but the stigma associated with the disease caused him to hide the condition throughout the rest of his life. When he died from AIDS-related complications, his cause of death was publicly given as kidney failure, and it wasn't until ten years later that his family revealed the truth in a biography.
- According to his wife Janet, Isaac Asimov wanted to go public during his lifetime but was persuaded not to by his doctors for the sake of his family and friends, as it was quite likely they would suffer from anti-AIDS prejudice that was prevalent at the time.
- Most newspaper obituaries will read that a person died "after a long illness," which usually means one of these.
- Speaking of newspapers, many horoscope columns now use the term "Moon Children" for those born from late June to late July, instead of Cancer. Aside from invoking this trope, it is even more ludicrous when you realize the disease was named after the crab (Latin name: cancer), because an untreated breast cancer can look like a crab.
- As mentioned above, head lice. Although it's not a sign of dirtyness or being low class, the sheer amount of work involved in eradicating the live lice from one's head and home (usually 2-7 days, and most of your day will be taken up with it), and removing the dead nits from the hair (at least two weeks), makes parents cringe when they hear somebody in their child's class has it. And most schools will not reveal who patient zero is, but simply send home the lice letter to everybody in the school, to avoid ostracizing the child.
Exceptions and Aversions
Anime & Manga
- In Black Jack's back story, he broke this taboo to straightforwardly tell a fellow medical student she had ovarian cancer. Overall, Black Jack tends to be very blunt about the patient's chances.
Films — Live-Action
- Averted in The Shootist, where John Wayne's character is explicitly said to have cancer.
- This may have something to do with the fact that John Wayne himself was dying of the disease — this would be his last film.
- From Team America: World Police, "Everyone has AIDS!!" (Which is a parody of RENT, discussed in the Theatre folder below.)
- Oddly inverted, along with just about everything else, in The Room. Lisa's mother says off-handidly that "The tests came back. I definitely have cancer." Setting it up as a possible plot point. However, it is never mentioned again and Lisa herself doesn't seem particularly affected by the news.
- Averted in Forrest Gump for Mama Gump, if not for Jenny. Forrest says outright that "she had got the cancer, and died on a Tuesday."
- A female character in the Anthony Trollope novel Doctor Thorne has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The condition is treated matter-of-factly, as it would have been in Trollope's time in Real Life. However, the idea that cancer was not shameful was so shocking to early 20th century readers that some believed Trollope instead meant to show the patient as a pathetic malingerer who claimed to have cancer so she could get the doctor to feel her breasts.
- Rebecca was revealed to be dying of a tumor in her ovaries, which mean that she couldn't have children.
- Deliberately averted by Norman Spinrad in "Carcinoma Angels". The original publication in Dangerous Visions was introduced with "This is a very funny story about cancer", and the writer's end note deliberately kept saying "cancer" in the course of railing against this trope.
Live Action TV
- Spoofed when Tommy of Rescue Me confesses to a fellow firefighter he thinks he caught the "big C" from a woman. He's quickly corrected that chlamydia is the "little c".
- Call the Midwife: Defied. When Chummy's mother is in her final illness, she mentions that people often refuse to mention its name. She more or less says that's for people with no backbone, says she has cancer, and says, "The beast is named."
- Funky Winkerbean has had several plots and events based around characters dying from cancer and never held back about what it was.
- Refreshingly averted in the South African Sesame Street, which features Kami, an HIV positive Muppet.
- Averted in RENT, where characters that have AIDS are pretty frank about it. In the film version, however, Roger and Mimi recognize each others' affliction through the medication without mentioning the name of the disease - though it's still averted in the case of Angel and Collins, who speak about it frankly and by name.
- Eugene Brieux's problem play Damaged Goods, though now forgotten, caused quite a stir in its time by referring to syphilis by name.
- Subverted in AdventureQuest. Alternate Ryuusei Cartwright's ambiguous disease is revealed to be terminal cancer and that he had been Secretly Dying all along since he and Gaiden had begun travelling between realities in search of his analogue.
- In the 1960s, John Wayne went public with the fact that he'd had lung cancer — and through surgery had "licked the Big C". He remained in remission for several years before developing stomach cancer; he died in 1979.