Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Folk Etymology: Gomer (Medical Slang)

Medpundit prints the word "Gomer," a form of medical slang, and follows many other writers on the internet as interpreting it as an acronym for "Get Out of My Emergency Room" and meaning "an unwanted emergency room patient."

Because I just finished two days in NYC recording a new Recorded Books college course on CD The English Language, I am particularly attuned to interesting linguistic phenomena, and this is one of them. So let me talk a little about Folk Etymology.

A Folk Etymology is the creation of a false, but appealing, etymology for a word. The Wikipedia entry is actually decent and give a group of good examples. In general, the acronym theory of etymology is usually wrong, particularly for words from before the twentieth century. I always have to spend a bit of time each semester disabusing students of the idea that "rule of thumb" comes from the thickness of a rod with which a man was allowed to beat his wife (Mary Wollstonecroft is partly to blame for this error), and there are many more.

However, "Gomer" is a twentieth-century word, so it could come from an acronym. But I am as close to certain as I can be that the actual etymology of "Gomer" in medical slang is not an acronym, but from the character "Gomer Pyle." And I have some print citation to help.

In the early 1970s, "Gomer" was medical slang for a stroke-patient, head-trauma victim, or someone afflicted by senile dementia. Individually wrapped, plastic emesis basins were called "Gomer bowls" (and, expensive as they were, they were regularly used to eat Chinese take-out, since plates and utensils were forbidden, for sanitation reasons, in the on-call rooms). Although I heard the word "Gomer" used very often, I never heard the "Get Out of My Emergency Room" acronym, and if it had been invented, I am sure I would have heard it: med students, interns and residents loved that kind of thing.

How do I know? My dad was an intern and a resident at New York Hospital from 1973 to 1976 and we lived in Pason House, across the street from the hospital. That was back when internship and residency was ever more hellish than it is now, with my dad getting the wonderful "every day and every other night" schedule at least once per month, and often more. I remember how great the world seemed when he was on "every third night" (think about that, complaining English professors: you worked every day and every other or every third night for a couple of years).

One of my dad's best friends was a guy named Neil Ravin. I remember Neil as someone who liked to sit and chat with me when he came over to visit, and he was very tall and thin, so his "airplane rides" (when he would swing me around in circles) were scary and fun.

Years later, in 1981, Ravin published M.D., in my opinion one of the very best "becoming a doctor" books out there, though it is of course somewhat dated now (the very first AIDS patients were beginning to show up in New York Hospital in the mid- 1970s, but no one recognized the disease yet). Supposedly some of the incidents and actions attributed to the "Iggy Bart" character were thing that my dad did or had happen to him (though the name "Iggy Bart" comes from the real name of the guy who was my pediatric allergist).

M.D. uses the word "Gomer" and "Gomer bowl" very frequently, but not once does it give the acronymic etymology for the word. And, if you read the book, you will see that this is the sort of thing that Ravin would have almost certainly used. For comparison, one of the locations in the book is based on Sloan Kettering, the hospital for cancer treatment in New York (which Ravin renames "Whipple"); Ravin tells the dark joke, "Where's the only place where the Mets always win? Answer: Whipple." ("Mets" meaning metastic cancer cells).

It is, of course, possible that "Gomer" became a piece of medical slang from the acronym and that the name, but not the acronym, travelled to New York Hospital in the early 1970s, but this is highly unlikely.

I think that it is far more likely that "Gomer" is based on the character of Gomer Pyle and was only later folk etymologized to mean "Get Out of My Emergency Room."

By the way, despite the success of M. D., several medical mysteries such as Informed Consent and Seven North and the tear-jerker Mere Mortals, Ravin never left medicine and is apparently a practicing endocrinologist specializing in thyroid disorders in Maryland. When I discovered that, I was not at all surprised: although its kind of silly to think that you get a "read" on people you know when you are eight years old, it just seemed fitting with my old impression of Neil, who was one of my dad's friend who I was always thrilled to see when he came over to visit.

[P.S.: This post is notice that I am finally no longer sick. Perhaps illness is why I was thinking of medicine. It turned out that I had pneumonia, and then my two-year-old son came down with it. Five days of 104.5 fever (and then a hives reaction to amoxicillin) was pretty scary. God bless quick chest x-rays and zithromax. We're all better now, just in time for the semester to start tomorrow].


Jim Hu said...

Glad you're feeling better!

The acronym version goes back at least to the 1978 novel House of God by the pseudonymous Dr. Samuel Shem about residency in Boston.

Jaime Smith said...

Gomer was also the name of Hosea's wife in the Bible. She was a prostitute who slept with other men, but God called Hosea to love her as He loves Israel.

johobbit said...

I haven't checked on your blog for awhile (summertime having the different schedule that it does), and didn't realize you and your son were so sick. Good to hear that you are both doing much better! Pneumonia is a scary illness - I came down with it after the Gathering 2003, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone, not even an Orc. Well, okay, maybe an Orc!! ;) Do continue to take care, because it drags one's body through the slough for quite a while, it seems.
Strength to you!


hormonedoc said...

Shem's book was a collection of internship folk tales, complete with the "O" sign and the "Q" sign and words like "Gomer." It was written by a Harvard doc from a Boston hospital. Professor Drout is quite correct. The word gomer had been around New York Hospital wards since the mid 1960's and had nothing to do with the ER but with those languishing decerebrates on the wards and connoted loss of mental acuity, patients who peed on other patients thinking they were toilets.
The Professor got it exactly correct--drawing on his own amazing memories from his childhood.


humbledoc said...

When Get Out of My Emergency Room appeared in the House of God as the explication of Gomer, the New York kindred of medical interns rolled their eyes in unison. Gomerhood had nothing much to do with emergency rooms but were more likely to be found in their native turf on the general medical wards, where they created havoc and headaches for interns, in the inimitable gomer way. Acute and chronic gomerosis had already been well described. The pseudonymous Samuel Shem wrote an entertaining book with entertaining lines, but he was apparently a tourist in the world of medicine and he reported what he heard as best he could. Professor Drout got it right. His exploration of the word is the best I've seen.

Liz Lewis said...

I came across this article on the orgins of the word/acronym 'gomer' while researching for an article on medical slang for my blog Healthbolt. Thanks for such a clear and concise discussion on the origins of the word.