Whose Syndrome is it Anyway? Apostrophes in Disease Names

In recent years the media enjoyed regaling us with the search for the Higgs boson, but I’m sure many people wondered what was so special about Mr Higg’s boson that we should all be so interested in him finding it again, let alone curious about how he lost it in the first place. Postulate a new thesis or make a new discovery and you’re liable to have your name enter the vernacular. Found a company associated with a new invention, and the name may even become standard for the innovation. Yet at what point does it all stop being yours? We all learn about Newton’s laws of gravitation in the classroom, whilst some go on to read up on Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Archimedes’ buoyancy principle, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion – it all seems so predictable, until it comes unstuck with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Not the laws of physics, the laws of English.

Why do we learn about Schrödinger’s cat but the Schrödinger equation? Do we need to use Planck’s constant or the Planck constant? I became curious when reading an article recently about someone with Asperger’s. Whether it’s a disease, a disorder or a syndrome, there seems to be little consensus about whether we need the possessive ‘s’.

The ICD-10 calls it Asperger’s syndrome, but the DSM-IV-TR refers to it as Asperger’s Disorder; only Wikipedia, in its infinite wisdom, calls it Asperger syndrome without the apostrophe (and yes, they had a long debate about the apostrophe but decided to go against the nomenclature of the official sources).

Wrong Planet

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with the American Medical Association style manual prefer the non-possessive form since the person it was named after never ‘owned’ the disease.

A Walk in the WoRds

I’m not sure you could argue that Newton ever really ‘owned’ the laws of gravitation either, but the apostrophe’s stuck. Are there any rules? I made some unscientific comparisons on Google’s ngram with a few common named diseases and laws, simply comparing the forms with apostrophes and otherwise in each case:

Certainly it’s a small sample, and I haven’t taken into account that many illnesses aren’t universally termed diseases, syndromes etc. Still one thing that seems clear is that there’s most confusion when there’s elision going on. Alzheimer’s disease is widely favoured over Alzheimer disease: there’s a clear ‘s’ sound in the term, and in my experience it’s very often shortened to merely Alzheimer’s. The ‘s’ in Down’s syndrome, on the other hand, goes unheard and as a result has lost ground over the years to the now more common Down syndrome. I’ve never heard anyone say that someone simply had Down’s.

The other conclusion you might draw is that if two names are involved, the apostrophe is quickly dropped if it is used at all. It’s only a small sample, but Paget-Schroeter’s disease seems to have been the favoured term only for a short initial period, whilst Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease doesn’t even get a look in with the apostrophe.

So on the back of that little unscientific method, if you want to keep your diseases, there are two rules you need to follow: firstly, make sure it’s a disease or a condition – syndromes are thieves – and secondly, if you end up making the discovery with a colleague, make sure you stop their name cropping up in citations. In the rock, paper, scissors of orthography, hyphens rule over apostrophes!

Random Quote

Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.

— Pancho Villa