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Disease By Any Other Name

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This trope is when a medical condition or disease is described in enough detail that the viewer/reader knows what it is, but the characters don't. Typically, this is because the disease hasn't been identified in-universe. The characters will refer to it by some term describing its effects or symptoms, while on the other side of the fourth wall we're nodding our heads. In this case, it's a version of Viewers Are Geniuses.


A variant is when one character from a more advanced part of the world or part of the time stream recognizes the disease for what it is, which is not demonic possession, an imbalance of the patient's humours, or some other outdated (by our standards) medical theory. If our traveler doesn't happen to have a treatment in his luggage, expect That Old-Time Prescription to make an appearance.

Differs from Victorian Novel Disease in that consumption/tuberculosis was a known disease at the time, it just got seriously cleaned up for that trope. Compare to The Disease That Shall Not Be Named, which is known in-universe but not spoken of by name because it's seen as shameful, and Ambiguous Disorder, when there's clearly something note  wrong but since the symptoms are determined by the plot there's not enough information for anyone in- or out-of-universe to figure it out. This can sometimes be a non-sexual form of Does This Remind You of Anything?.



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    A Song Of Ice And Fire 

GRRM is very fond of this trope in his A Song of Ice and Fire series.

  • Robert Arryn is described as having "the shaking sickness", episodes of which are clearly described as epileptic seizures. The characters only know how to treat this by using leeches.
  • Yezzan zo Qaggaz's condition greatly resembles viral hepatitis.
  • Heke (the first Reek) had something that has to be trimethylaminuria.
  • The bloody flux is obviously a dysentery analogue.
  • The disease from which Lord Hoster Tully is dying is heavily hinted to be cancer.
  • Tyrion Lannister has dwarfism caused by achondroplasia. In the first book, Tyrion was capable of doing impressive physical stunts in spite of his small size, but GRRM eliminated them after learning that this is impossible for a person with achondroplasia. Some readers also believe that Tyrion is a human chimera because of his mismatched eyes, two colored hair and the fact that fraternal twins run in the Lannister family.
  • The Crapsack World of the books is filled with psychopaths, the most notable being Cersei, Joffrey and Ramsay. They have no empathy, remorse nor can they even refrain themselves from inflicting danger when that would serve their own interest better. Joffrey even tortured animals to death when he was a child, which is common in serial killers.
  • Stannis Baratheon's obsession with rules and general ineptitude in social bonding (especially in contrast to his two charismatic brothers) has fueled Epileptic Trees that he is somewhere in the Autistic spectrum.
  • Sweets, Yezzan's favorite slave, is intersex.
  • Maelys the Monstrous, the last Blackfire pretender, had a parasitic twin in the form of a smaller, secondary head sticking out of his neck. Unrealistically, the people of ASOIAF were aware that this was caused by Maelys absorbing his twin in utero and considered him an involuntary kinslayer.

    Fan Works 
  • Overlapping with The Disease That Shall Not Be Named, Elsa's depression in the Frozen fic Darkness Burning is only vaguely referred to by Elsa as a "darkness" and as "an illness of the mind" by her doctors. This is in part because the term "depression" in its current terminology didn't exist in the 1840s.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Hansel is described as having "sugar sickness" from his time imprisoned in the witch's gingerbread house. To the audience it is obvious he is talking about insulin-dependent aka Type I diabetes. (Which is also a case of Artistic License – Medicine; diabetes isn't actually caused by eating sugar, and especially not Type I.)

  • World of the Five Gods series:
  • The description of "Summer Fever" in Darian's Tale/the Owl Trilogy makes it sound just like polio, right down to being (what a modern doctor would call) a viral disease.
  • Dragonriders of Pern: Pastoral Pern has forgotten about the flu (among other things), and the entire planet is nearly wiped out by its return. They don't know what this fast-spreading illness is, but any reader will recognize the sneezy, achy, awful symptoms—especially the fact that most of the deaths are the result of a secondary illness. Ultimately a Healer and weyr-woman (re)invent the flu vaccine using very primitive methods, and distribute it to the populace, literally saving the world from pandemic.
  • The Inheritance Cycle describes people losing their teeth and hair and becoming very sick after a Fantastic Nuke, without ever calling it radiation sickness.
  • In one book of the Little House on the Prairie series, the entire Ingalls family comes down with "fever 'n' ague", later (and in hindsight) identified as malaria. The family members disagree on whether it was caused by eating tainted watermelon or being out in the night air.
  • The Lighthouse Duet: Valen repeatedly complains about his difficulties with reading, at one point explaining to another character that when he looks at a page, the writing seems to twist around before his eyes. It's pretty clear that he suffers from severe dyslexia.
  • Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay, has "the sugar sickness" (similar to Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, above).
  • Warrior Cats:
    • Warriors has several different types of coughs: whitecough, greencough, redcough, and kitten-cough. The worst cough, "greencough", is pneumonia while "redcough" refers to Blood from the Mouth.
    • In Rising Storm, Yellowfang mentions that ShadowClan had fallen ill to a disease carried by rats from the Carrionplace - very likely referring to the bubonic plague.
    • A cat named Pebblefur had "a strange, agonizing lump in his belly" when he died. No herbs could fix it. It's heavily implied he had a tumour, maybe even a cancerous tumour.
    • It's never mentioned in-series what killed Leopardstar. Her disease is beyond the comprehension of cats but involved frequent thirst. Word of God is that she was diabetic.
    • Shellheart dies of a painful lump in his stomach that is noted to be impossible to survive from. He died only two months after this news broke. It's implied that Shellheart died of cancer.
    • Tawnyspots had a recurring sickness prior to his death and a painful lump in his abdomen. He also passed stools very often and, near his death, he couldn't keep his food down. This all implies cancer.
  • In Survivor Dogs, rabies is referred to by dogs as "water-madness".
  • In Tailchaser's Song, rabies is referred to as "dripping-mouth sickness".
  • The Wicked Years:
    • After Ama Clutch steps on a rusty nail, she's afraid she'll fall ill with "the frozen-face syndrome", AKA tetanus.
    • Nessarose was born without arms. While pregnant with her, Melena took illegal capsules that she got from an alchemist. This all emulates similar instances of armless children being born due to drugs (such as, most infamously, thalidomide) used during pregnancy.
    • It's implied that Rain is autistic, however the term doesn't yet exist in the series.
  • In The Cold Moons, over thirty badgers get ill after staying in a blizzard all day and then going to sleep in a warm, steamy cave. Their illness is a dangerous one that causes fever and fluid to build up in the lungs. This sickness can only be cured with marshmallow roots. It's clear that the badgers are ill with pneumonia.

    Live Action Television 
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: In one episode, Data is damaged and loses his memories while recovering a piece of a Starfleet probe that had crashed on a medieval style Rubber-Forehead Alien World. Data, with no way of knowing the piece of the probe he had with him was radioactive, has no problem letting the local blacksmith start making trinkets and jewelry out of that odd new metal. Soon the entire village is sick (as radioactive particles have seeped into the water table from smithing) and, predictably, the villagers blame the strange newcomer for their problems.
  • The Tudors: Henry VIII's armies are laying siege to Boulogne, but the men are suffering badly from the "bloody flux", i.e., dysentery.
  • The Borgias: Juan comes down with a disease that is clearly syphilis, just after it was historically first found in Europe (probably brought back from the Americas).

    Mythology and Religion 
  • Some commentators have speculated that cases of demonic possession dealt with by Jesus in The Four Gospels show symptoms we would recognize today as epilepsy or mental disorders.
  • Similarly, those suffering the "falling/sleeping sickness" are widely recognized as having either narcolepsy or epilepsy, and since so many cultures in differing regions both recognized it and held a strong belief that such people had oracular powers, it's a puzzle for scholars.
  • The Fair Folk of Celtic/European society are widely known for their Blue and Orange Morality, difficulty telling lies, and Lack of Empathy—so both they and the kidnapped, cursed, or illicit part-human children of the Changeling Tale frequently show traits that modern doctors recognize as autism. Unfortunately, with the Fair Folk being notoriously feared, ancient folks extended that fear to their children and a widely known method of "breaking the curse" was to beat or KILL the "changeling."


    Video Games 
  • Crusader Kings II uses the period names for various diseases. Two of the more commonly seen are "lover's pox" for herpes and "great pox" for syphilis. Also used is "camp fever" for epidemic typhus.
  • Far Cry Primal: The Udam tribe suffer from a disease they call "skull fire" and believe that eating the bodies of their enemies will cure them. It is heavily implied that they actually have kuru, which was caused by their cannibalistic practices.

    Real Life 
  • Posthumous diagnoses of different illnesses (both physical and mental) are done by examining descriptions of famous historical people. Just for a few examples:
    • Albert Einstein is thought to have had Asperger syndrome.
    • The Marquis de Sade is believed to have had psychopathy.
    • Both Isabella of Castile and Mary I of England are thought to have died from ovarian cancer.
    • Historians are still arguing over whether Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche's mental breakdown has been ascribed to everything from syphilis to what is now called bipolar disorder.


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