Vol. 66 No. 2 (2018)

Syphilis: The History of an Eponym

Published 2018-04-03


In the late fifteenth century, a hideous contagious disease, never previously seen or heard of, swept across Europe. It was “so cruel, so distressing, so appalling,” said Joseph Grünpeck (1473–1532), “that until now nothing more terrible or disgusting has ever been known on this earth”. The “never previously seen or heard of” disease was syphilis. When it first appeared, physicians and lay people had no term for it and invented various names to describe its causes and symptoms. The present essay is an ontological typology of many of those common names, before syphilis, an eponym named after a mythological figure, became the standard name for this sexually transmitted disease. Although syphilis is a common name rather than the kind of proper names generally discussed in Names, its eponymous character lends itself to some of the same ontological and epistemological analyses used to examine proper names.


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