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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 work is set in the past or another world and 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the disease for what it is, which is not demonic possession, an imbalance of the patient's humours, or some other outdated (by our standards) medical theory.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 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 Diagnosed by the Audience, when there's clearly somethingnote  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.


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    Fan Works 
  • In Blind Courage, it's implied that Zelda's mother had a brain tumor, but no one in-series understood it. According to the writer, she died of eclampsia.
  • born of hell('s kitchen) throws a strong suspicion of depression on the Murdock bloodline — Foggy mentally muses he often wondered if his friend Matt's father Jack suffered from a generalized anxiety disorder, Matt himself has crippling insecurity and Matt's young son Peter already displays low self-worth, so there's certainly a genetic component to this.
  • 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.
  • Denounce the Evils:
    • James is written to be autistic, but again this is never outright stated in the text.
    • Jessie's mindset comes off as disorderly, with the author's notes saying that she has a personality disorder. She has poor self-esteem, abandonment issues, and attaches to people intensely but prefers to mask it all behind her attitude and Hair-Trigger Temper. Though never said out loud in the text, the writer states that Jessie's intentionally and autobiographically written with Borderline Personality Disorder.
  • Divorced: The characters don't fully understand it, but Zelda has trouble conceiving and coming to terms due to RH incompatibility. Her husband Ganondorf is RH positive while Zelda is RH negative. When Zelda was pregnant with her first daughter Zelda Marie, she was injured and her immune system attacked the baby, resulting in a stillbirth. Her second daughter Mina survived because she was RH-negative like her mother.
  • Rise of the Dragon Child mentions Jarl Balgruuf's wife died five years ago when "her blood turned against her", meaning it was abnormally pale and prone to flow when she had a scratch. Those symptoms would indicate leukemia, but Skyrim's medieval society couldn't pose the diagnosis.
  • RWBY: Scars:
    • Weiss is mentally ill but refuses to see a therapist. As a result, she displays various symptoms but has no in-series diagnosis, though the writer mentions a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder in the comments. At her worst, she can go days without showering, eating, or leaving her bed. She also has a history of Self-Harm and suicidal ideation. Weiss suffers from hallucinations that involve her reflection (which she calls "Mirror") talking to her and criticising her.
    • Weiss' twin brother Whitley is written as having an undiagnosed case of anti-social personality disorder.
  • In Shards of a Memory, Leo gets sick for at least a week with an unnamed illness. His symptoms are described as having a high fever, coughing, raspy breathing, and muscle weakness, indicating pneumonia.
  • In The Writing on the Wall, Daring Do leads an expedition into an ancient tomb bearing a curse and a warning from an unknown civilization of millennia past, which is summarily dismissed. As the diggers delve into the inner chambers, many begin falling ill with an unnamed wasting illness of unknown origin. However, an astute reader would recognize it instantly as radiation sickness, implying that the "tomb" is very likely the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, finally opened long after humanity has gone extinct, and the characters have unknowingly done everything wrong in trying to contain it.

    Film — Animated 
  • Beauty and the Beast: When the narrator describes the Beast's mental state, he mentions that he "fell into despair and lost all hope", which fits the modern-day description of clinical depression (which in this time period would be called melancholia). The Beast's behaviour early on in the film is very similar to how many men with depression act, and Word of God stating that he is slowly losing his mind, supports the idea that the Beast is suffering from depression as a result of his curse.
  • Frozen: Naturally, no specific diagnosis is mentioned, the closest being references to the general "fear" Elsa feels, but in the first movie, her social isolation, emotional invalidation, and the trauma of nearly killing her beloved sister and losing their parents certainly left its marks: Elsa is emotionally unstable, brooding, anxious, and irritable. The creators state that she suffers from depression and anxiety.

    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).
  • Panic Room: While it’s never stated outright that Sarah has Diabetes, there are enough context clues to make it easy to figure out if you know what it is.

  • Al Capone Does My Shirts: Natalie has severe, minimally verbal autism. It's 1935. When the new neighborhood kids ask Natalie's brother Moose if she's "retarded", and he's angered by this, but he can't really refute it. Given the time, that may well be her literal diagnosis. Natalie ends up working with a teacher, Mrs. Kelly, who says she's not supposed to count, rock, play with her buttons, etc, which in modern parlance would be called "suppressing stimming" and is frowned upon. On the other hand, Mrs. Kelly also advises the family to bring Natalie along on errands, bring her out into the community so she's not isolated at home, which is reasonably in keeping with modern advice.
  • 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.
  • Dark Shores: The "fits" that have plagued Marcus since childhood are clearly asthma attacks—he starts coughing and then wheezing and in the worst case described, his airways close. The fits are caused either by environmental factors (like dust) or emotion.
  • 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.
  • Heralds of Valdemar: 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.
  • 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 Lady of the Forest by Jennifer Roberson, Robin Hood shows classic symptoms of suffering from PTSD as a result of his experiences in The Crusades.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In The Mists of Avalon, a brief passage of Gwenhwyfar reflecting on her childhood and later life indicates to the reader that she probably suffers from agoraphobia.
  • In The Priory of the Orange Tree, Berethnet queens are often afflicted with a kind of "melancholy without source", and the descriptions of Sabran's symptoms plus the tale of a previous queen's suicide strongly imply clinical depression.
  • George R. R. Martin 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, a disorder whose main symptom is strong, pungent-smelling body odor.
    • "Bloody flux" is an antiquated term for dysentery.
    • 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.
    • Sandor "the Hound" Clegane and other victims of abuse or war show clear signs of PTSD in a setting where the condition is completely unknown. Sandor in particular shows fearful avoidance towards fire, has frequent emotional breakdowns, and is The Alcoholic.
    • Sweets, Yezzan's favorite slave, has an intersex condition... but an inaccurate one. There is no real life intersex condition in humans that results in full, functional genitalia of both sexes.
    • 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 en utero (a very modern understanding of the cause of such symptoms) and thus considered him an involuntary kinslayer.
    • King Aegon III Targaryen, who never enjoyed anything in his life after suffering through the Dance of the Dragons, quite clearly suffered from clinical depression. The same happened to his aunt, Helaena Targaryen, who stopped caring for anything after seeing her eldest son beheaded before her eyes.
    • By having his carriage making frequent stops in order for him to urinate, along with a few other slight hints, some fans believe that the Essos trader Illyrio is diabetic.
  • The Stormlight Archive: Due to the nature of magic in the series, any Surgebinder is basically required to have some sort of mental illness or severe trauma. Surgebinders are people bonded with Nature Spirits called spren, a bond which only takes hold when the host's soul is "broken" and the spren fills the cracks.
    • Kaladin clearly has severe depression in part due to the trauma of losing his brother and a great deal of survivor's guilt that comes along with it. There seems to be a strong component of seasonal depression as well, as even since childhood his mood has always been worse during the "Weeping" that occurs each year, a month-long weather phenomenon of a continual light rainstorm.
    • Renarin has this played for laughs at one point, although his disease is specifically named. He says he has a "blood weakness," which Kaladin (who actually has medical training) notes is a folk description that could indicate any number of illnesses. He quizzes him for a few minutes and diagnoses him as a symptomatic epileptic, and Renarin asks why Kaladins training in "field medicine" includes seizures. Word of God has also confirmed he is autistic, something that there are numerous small signs throughout the series, but in-universe, people just think he's a bit strange.
    • Shallan is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to an abusive childhood and murdering both her parents to defend herself and her brothers. In Oathbringer her condition begins to resemble Dissociative Identity Disorder, although this is significantly looser, and Word of God has said that her condition is not intended to exactly match any specific real-world diagnoses due to the unusual way her condition interacts with her Lightweaver powers.
    • Also, in Rhythm of War there are mentions of a mysterious sickness sweeping central Roshar. This is confirmed by Word Of Brandon to be the common cold, brought to Roshar by offworld visitors.
  • In Survivor Dogs, rabies is referred to by dogs as "water-madness".
  • In Tailchaser's Song, rabies is referred to as "dripping-mouth sickness".
  • 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, yellowcough, and kitten-cough (which is only mentioned in the first book). The worst cough, "greencough", is pneumonia while "redcough" refers to Blood from the Mouth. Whitecough is a vague illness usually caught in leafbare/autumn. It causes symptoms like shivers and coughing and can lead to greencough, suggesting it's either a chest infection or a cat equivalent to the flu. In Rising Storm and Thunder and Shadow, it's mentioned that ShadowClan had fallen ill to "yellowcough" 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 and wouldn't respond to any medicine. It involved frequent thirst, extreme weight loss, constant hunger, and increased weakness. 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.
    • Petalfall was forced to retire from being a deputy because of "the falling sickness", which is epilepsy.
    • According to the writers, Moth Flight has ADD, but none of the characters in-series understand it (and, due to the Ambiguous Time Period, she probably predates the disorder being named).
    • Pink Eyes has pure white fur and poor eyesight as well as his namesake pink eyes. To the reader, he quite clearly has albinism.
  • The Wicked Years:
    • After Ama Clutch steps on a rusty nail in Wicked, 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.
  • World of the Five Gods series:
    • Paladin of Souls: Ista sees the youngest child of her Arch-Enemy and describes her as having the characteristics of "those children born to a woman late in life" — very clearly talking about Down Syndrome.
    • The Curse of Chalion: A physician enthusiastically tells a horrified Cazaril that his tumor could have grown teeth or hair, i.e., a teratoma. He attributes it to a demon attempting to grow a body and escape into the material world.
    • The Hallowed Hunt: After a wolf-spirit sends the hero into a kind of metaphysical seizure, Hallana — a sorceress/physician acolyte — comments, "I have seen the falling sickness, and that was not it."
  • The Long Ships: Styrbjörn is mentioned to be brave to the point of recklessness and to drive his own men to despair with his complete disregard for the opinions of both men and supernatural beings, but also periodically afflicted by "the curse of the Uppsala kings", which manifests as periods of deep melancholy, where he shuts himself away. In the setting, this is treated as a personal quirk, potentially worrying but ultimately nothing to really worry about. The modern reader will quickly and easily identify it as untreated bipolar disorder.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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).
  • In Bridgerton, Edmund Bridgerton dies very suddenly of a bee-sting in the backstory, and his wife and children can't make sense of it. It's clear to modern viewers that he suffered a severe allergic reaction—he develops a huge rash at the site of the sting, and he has so much trouble breathing that he collapses and dies in minutes. As the series is set in the early 1800s, real life would take about a hundred more years for people to properly understand what anaphylaxis is.
  • The Chosen TV Series: Matthew is very good with numbers and was described as being a very intelligent child, but has trouble with social cues to the point of being ostracized. This leads to him becoming a tax collector. Dallas Jenkins, the creator/director, has confirmed that this version of Matthew has Asperger's, but this is never explicitly said in-universe because of the time period.
  • In Royal Pains, the genetic disorder Hank's benefactor Boris Kuester von Jurgens-Ratenicz has is likely Huntington's disease. Due to Boris's intense need for privacy and the kind of research he funds, upon his comments to a near-perfect physical and reaction to an early warning sign, Hank realizes something's wrong. After learning of Boris's family history of dying at a certain age, Hank's able to confront him over his condition. Boris shares how his father completely lost motor control, mental capacity, and before long, died. He reveals to Hank the reason he wanted him to stay at Shadow Pond was not to cure him but to have someone who'd stay by his side as it progressed, treating the crippling symptoms and dementia until his inevitable death.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: In "Thine Own Self", 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 Umbrella Academy (2019): Sissy's son Harland would today be called a nonverbal autistic child. In 1963, his parents know something is up with him but they don't put any specific words to it.

    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 sometimes a 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—a widely known method of "breaking the curse" was to beat or KILL the "changeling." It should be mentioned that this was not universal, though; in other times and places, changelings were always treated well, to not risk incurring the wrath of the Fair Folk for mistreating one of their children. Fairy changelings also showed a number of physical disabilities or mental disorders, so it seems that "changelings" were an umbrella group of "people who didn't fit in with society."


    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 suffers 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.
  • Postknight 2: Xander has several symptoms of autism, including difficulty understanding social cues, being unable to keep his thoughts organized while socializing, and hyper-fixating on his research. In-universe, however, nobody really knows what's wrong with him, and both he and Fleur just refer to it as a disorder.

  • Darcy's behavior in Copper eyes has all of the hallmarks of depression. He literally sees the world in a grey-scale (a common metaphor applied to depression), is numb to everyone including his friends, lacks any passion for his hobby in photography and it is implied that he has a history of self-harm. He is even repeatedly called "Emo" by his friends for it.
  • Played with in Arthur, King of Time and Space: In the baseline arc, Lancelot sometimes has "moods" where he's filled with despair and doesn't leave his room, while at other times he's the exact opposite. This is generally assumed to be part of his deep piety; going from self-flagellation (sometimes literally) to religious ecstasy. In the future arc, however, Guenevere diagnoses him as bipolar pretty quickly, and he gets the same diagnosis in the contemporary arc.

    Western Animation 
  • The Legend of Korra: Korra has all the hallmark signs of mercury poisoning but the liquid she's poisoned with is never referred to as such.
  • Many Steven Universe fans believe that Lapis Lazuli (after being imprisoned in a mirror for a thousand years, being declared a traitor for no reason when she finally went home, imprisoned, and forced into a toxic fusion with Jasper), has developed PTSD.
  • Wander over Yonder: Emperor Awesome is heavily implied to have developed PTSD after being held prisoner and tortured by Lord Dominator.

    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 been on the autistic spectrum. The same is thought of Thomas Jefferson.
    • 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. Given that Isabella of Castile was Mary's maternal grandmother and we know now that ovarian cancer often has a genetic component, this is entirely plausible.
    • Historians are still arguing over whether Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome. It's been speculated that his wife's notorious mood swings were caused by vitamin B deficiency.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche's mental breakdown has been ascribed to everything from syphilis to what is now called bipolar disorder.
    • Leonardo da Vinci is usually thought of as having had ADHD, due to the way he tended to start a project full of passion and stopping halfway through to start on another one.
    • Vincent van Gogh is generally believed to have suffered from either bipolar disorder or a liver disorder known as Acute Intermittent Porphyria, which among other symptoms can cause short but intense attacks of paranoia and psychosis.
    • Ulysses S. Grant is believed to have had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Besides certain passages of his memoir hinting towards symptoms, Grant was also reported to uncontrollably weep before every battle during the Civil War, after which he would appear emotionless and cold, which indicates dissociation. He also had a strong aversion to blood, refusing even to eat meat that wasn't well-done. This is thought to have been triggered by him growing up as a tanner's son.
    • Porphyria is also considered a possible explanation for the mental health issues suffered by King George the Third.
    • Based on forensic analysis, it is now known that King Richard III had mild to moderate scoliosis, which was exaggerated by the Tudors to make Richard appear more villainous.
    • The issues King Henry VIII's wives had with having children (as well as his own later mental and physical health problems) are thought to be from him having a rare blood type, Kell positive. If a Kell-positive man gets a negative blood type woman pregnant, the first pregnancy is normal but the woman will develop antigens to attack the fetus with each successive pregnancy, causing stillbirths or miscarriages. He is believed to have caused at least eleven pregnancies with only four of them producing healthy babies. All but one of them, Mary I, was a firstborn child but the theory is that she had a positive blood type which protected her. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had six miscarriages. A British team of researchers have found issues with bearing children after a first pregnancy to run in males on his mother's side of the family to further support this theory. The health problems he faced in later life may be viewed as being from McLeod syndrome that runs in Kell-positive men.