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].

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Still (Barely) Alive

First of all, my thanks to everyone who emailed get-well wishes. I really, really appreciated it even if I was not able to reply.

As we discovered when my two-year-old son got really, scarily sick, pneumonia visited our house twice, explaing why I could not get well from what I thought was a summer cold. Add in a bad reaction to amoxicillin for my little one, and it was a very difficult and frankly frightening few weeks in the Drout household. But now, thanks to the miracles of modern antibiotics that don't cause horrible allegic reactions and hives, everyone is well, and we even managed to celebrate my daughter's birthday without major disruption (and she is thrilled about her new pet cornsnake and her fly rod--is she a dream child, or what?).

On the other hand, I am nearly three weeks behind on things going into a semester that starts next week, so life is pretty stressful. I may actually be late on one or two deadlines, but I intend to be caught up by the end of the first week in September. If you are waiting for a reply, and haven't heard from me by then, please feel free to noodge.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

As Soon As I Can

To anyone who is waiting on an email from me:

I've been really, really sick, sicker than I've been in quite a while, and before that I was unplugged from the internet for a couple of days, so I don't think I've really answered any email since around August 4.

On Friday I got out of the house and dragged myself down to Wheaton. This turned out to be a mistake.

I'm hopeful I'll be better soon and will be able to catch up, but at this point, and after the setback caused by Friday, I am goign to force myself to rest until I am better.

Sorry about the delay in communications.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Science Fiction Course on CD

My college course on CD, From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction is now available from Recorded Books. I am very pleased with the way this course came out (and I hope you will be, too). Writing and recording it also gave me a good excuse to read a lot of SF in chronological order, something I had never done for my varous 'theme' courses in SF.

We finished recording How We Do Things With Words: Rhetoric, Writing and the Arts of Persuasion, and I'm now in the process of writing a History of the English Language course. Both of those should be available in September. My fantasy literature course, Rings, Swords and Monsters should now also be available in a Barnes and Noble near you (though they have re-titled it Of Sorcerers and Men for their Portable Professor Series).

Here's the cover for the SF course. There's also a very cool Cthulhu illustration for the section on Lovecraft.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Should I Become an English Prof?

Frank at Bourgeois Nerd had decided not to go to grad school for an English Ph.D. based on his readings of academic blogs. In this post he wonders if this was a wise decision and if academic blogs are an accurate reflection of life in grad school and afterwards. These are very good questions, and because Frank is a Jersey guy, he deserves some attempt at answers, despite my insane deadlines right now.

Frank has actually received some good comments from other Profs and grad students, so I am not going to repeat all of that (just read the comments), but I want to add a few things.

First, graduate students live for complaining, so you should always discount their miserable whining by 60% (mine also). I'm not saying that grad school doesn't often feel miserable, but that is also part of being that age and having to deal with the difficulties of having no money, no prestige, etc. In retrospect, a lot of grad school is a lot of fun, but that depends in great part on the program you are in and the students around you. Professors also like to gripe, and it seems to be bad form ever to admit in public that you are fabulously happy and fulfilled in your job and your life. There's a lot of the "I wear black on the outside because that's how I feel on the inside" Emo pose in both grad school and in the professoriate.

That said, grad school with a bad advisor or terrible colleagues or a rotten department can really suck and be a true waste of time and resources. The job market is terrible and isn't getting much better for tenure-track jobs, and there can be a lot of politics in academia, which can unfairly cause tenure denial. I think you need to be very, very cautious about additional student loans for graduate school since (experience talking here) the cost runs up very quickly while the earning power afterwards isn't so great, and if you drop out just before the Ph.D., the financial cost can be enormous.


Being an English professor is a great job. You get to study what you want, read and write all the time, and, as part of your job talk about interesting, intellectual things with other people who are also interested in those things. The flexibility is very valuable, the pay isn't as bad as it could be, and the security of a tenured job can't be beat. So it's a good prize. And most importantly, you get to teach.

Which is exactly why lots of people want a professor job. Which means that getting it takes some doing.

My best friend from college is a successful Broadway actress who does concerts with Marvin Hamlish, etc. Things are going very well for her now, but when we were both getting started we used to commiserate about how hard we were working with few results to show. She passed along an actors' saying:

Aspiring Actor: I have no life.

Slightly More Established Actor: Oh! You wanted a life? I didn't realize that. I thought you wanted a career. If you wanted a life, you should have said so.

The point is that to get the prize of being a 'working actor' or a tenure-track assistant professor, a lot of sacrifice is required at the early stages. Almost all of the people who dropped out of my graduate programs were those who took graduate school as an extension of college rather than as a job that was going to require at least 40 hours per week of hard work (and usually need more than that).

As for politics, yes they are there in academia, but not demonstrably more so than in a lot of other professions. I've been lucky in that the politics at Wheaton are manageable, and if you're a good teacher, pretty much everything else is discounted, which is very helpful. But I also want to challenge the bromide that academic politics are so vicious because so little is at stake. Hogwash. Academic politics can be so vicious because it's all about status, which is the issue around which all the most vicious political battles occur in any profession. So it's not so much about being particularly political, or being a particularly good suck-up (though I've seen that work for a few people in the short run), but about producing some kind of output that can be measured and can stand up on its own (i.e., publications, syllabi, etc.) to insulate you from the more dangerous and miserable politics. There were politics at the Pet Store that I managed, and they are there in any organization that includes people, so that's not a particular reason to avoid academia.

Frank's other worry about not wanting to be a vagabond academic is more well-founded. Academia definitely rewards those who can/will hop from place to place. This is especially true at the very upper levels. If you are tied to one geographic location or to another person, academia is not very accomodating. If you want your job to be in NJ forever, you're giving yourself a much higher uphill climb for a tenure-track job (though I do know someone who desperately wanted to get a tenure-track job in North Dakota, and did, and is happy there).

So in partial conclusion, I would say that the crankiness on academic blogs shouldn't warn you away from academia, but the real problems of geography and the job market should give you pause. And most of all, I think people should not go into academia unless they really want it badly. Otherwise you will be out-competed by someone who does, even if you are intellectually superior to that person.

The academic environment is also a lot bigger than the tenured professors who have the "elite" status. Several of my former students got degrees in library science from Simmons College. Especially because they were also computer-savvy, they all had multiple job offers upon graduation in the geographic locations of their choice. And at least one of them is almost certainly making more money than I am right now, and having what seems to be a pretty great life. Library science, distance learning, academic PR and communications, development and administration are all other avenues that provide a lot of the great things that being a professor provides. They don't, however, give you a classroom and a bunch of students. To me that is the greatest benefit of being a professor, and why my job is also my calling (and thus why it is great, and I'm happy).

[UPDATE: Another Damned Medievalist in a comment below noted her rule of "don't go to grad school unless they pay you to do it." I actually had something about this in the first draft of the post but then couldn't get it to fit and so cut it. But the point is very important: I think it is very, very risky to go into debt to pay for grad school in the humanities, particularly if you are seeking a Ph.D. That debt can be crippling when you get out, particularly if you run into some bad luck and don't land a full-time position your first year (and the unfair reality of the adjunct world is that two half-time positions do not equal one full-time position). Most of the big land-grant colleges in the midwest will pay your tuition and a stipend if you can teach, and I strongly recommend having second and third thoughts about a program, no matter how prestigious, that doesn't at least cover your tuition and give you a chance to teach. The starting salary for a full-time, tenure-track job in English in the Northeast is about $50,000. That's above the median income for a family of four in the U.S., and a nice living on its own, but it would be difficult to live on in a high-cost area (like those in the Northeast) if you also had to service $50K of debt even with today's lower interest rates (and your grace period is only six months from graduation if I remember correctly).]