The Language of Illness and Illness as a Language

Could it be that the way we use language to talk about illness and disease affects our whole understanding of it? Could it be that “the essence of a disease” and “the essence of a word” – of the language with which we describe states of ‘dis-ease’ – are one and the same?

To begin with it is important to recognise how many phrases used to talk about illness contain words that imply that it is:

  • some ‘thing’ that we ‘have’, ‘catch’ or ‘get’
  • something that is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’
  • something that attacks us
  • Something that fails


  • I caught a cold.
  • She has cancer.
  • What’s wrong with me?
  • He’s got a bad heart.
  • My back/head is killing me.
  • He is suffering from liver failure.

 Secondly, biological medicine, far from being based purely on scientific fact, is pervaded by verbal metaphors or figures of speech – and in particular expressions derived from the language of war and violence.


  • War on cancer.
  • Defending or protecting oneself against disease.
  • Battling, struggling or fighting against an illness.
  • Mobilising/reinforcing the body’s immune defences.
  • An aggressive tumour or virus.
  • Fighting off an infection.
  • Killer cells.

 Thirdly, illness has been explained and interpreted historically in many different religious, moral and ‘scientific’ ways.


  • As a punishment for sin.
  • As a ‘test’ of will or faith.
  • As an attack by malign spirits.
  • As a result of misdeeds in a past life.
  • As a sign of moral ‘degeneracy’ (syphilis, AIDS).
  • As an evolutionary means for the survival of the fittest.
  • As an invasion by pathogens such as bacteria or viruses.
  • As the ‘price’ paid for an ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle.
  • As a result of eating the ‘wrong’ foods.
  • As a colonisation by cancerous cells.
  • As a result of faulty genes.

Fourthly, the body itself has been culturally and linguistically described in many different ways:


  • As an image of God.
  • As a sacred temple of the gods.
  • As something to be controlled or tamed by the mind.
  • As a container of emotions and of the soul or psyche.
  • As a mere disposable shell of the soul or spirit.
  • As a more or less well-functioning machine.
  • As a product of our genes.

Body Language in Everyday Speech

Everyday speech and verbal language is itself full of ‘body language’ – containing countless metaphors or ‘figures of speech’ which not only refer to bodily organs and functions but offer symbolic clues to types of inner dis-ease that might find expression in both physical and mental health problems.


  • To be/feel inflamed, to be thick-skinned or thin-skinned, sensitive or prickly, irritable or itchy, to be touched or untouched by something/someone, to let something/someone get under one’s skin.
  • To be heartless or cold-hearted, to take something to heart, to be disheartened, to lack heart or lose heart, to be heartbroken, a heartfelt emotion, a fluttering heart etc.
  • To find something hard to stomach or digest, to feel sick or nauseated about something, to have a gut feeling about something, to feel gutted.
  • To not feel one can breathe freely, to feel stifled, to feel one has no room to breathe, to lack breathing space, to lack inspiration (from the Latin spirare – to breathe).
  • To be headstrong, to be boneheaded, to keep a clear head, to head in a certain direction, to make or not to make headway, to head something off, to have a head for something, to lose one’s head, to bring something to a head etc.
  • To be unable to face or face up to something or someone, to come face to face with something or someone, to show one’s true face.
  • To not see a point, to refuse to see something, to not see straight, to not see things in perspective, to lack vision or insight, to be short-sighted, to close one eyes to something, to have a blindspot, to not have an eye for something/
  • To stand on one’s own two feet, to find one’s balance or ground, to stand up for oneself, to take things in one’s stride.
  • To lack backbone, to be spineless, to back someone up or to be in need of support and backing.
  • To feel inwardly frozen stiff or immobilised.
  • To shoulder a burden or lean on someone’s shoulders.
  • To be something as a pain in the neck or a pain in the ass.
  • To feel overstretched, stressed, stiff, constricted or tense.
  • To feel someone getting up one’s nose.
  • To be unable to handle or get a grip’ on a situation or person.
  • To be full of bile.

Even simple linguistic prepositions such as ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘on’ and ‘off’, ‘up’ and ‘down’ etc – all of which form part and parcel of the very structure of language, play a particularly significant role here, implying that the body is a container of some sort for mental and emotional objects.


letting something ‘out’, taking or holding something ‘in’, having an idea ‘in’ one’s mind or a feeling ‘in’ one’s body, letting ‘out’ an emotion, feeling ‘off’ or ‘put off’, going ‘into’ oneself or letting things ‘out of’ oneself, feeling ‘up’ or ‘down’, ‘high’ or ‘low’, trapped ‘in’ one’s body or ‘out of’ one’s mind.

All these expressions arise from and reflect our felt bodily relation to spaceas also does the use of words such as ‘upset’, ‘unstable’ or ‘imbalanced’ and expressions such as ‘leaning to one side’, ‘finding one’s ground’ or ‘shifting’ one’s stance, attitude, posture or position.

That language itself is ‘body language’ can also be seen from the way in which expressions referring to ‘mental’ states make use of figures of speech but relating to specific bodily sensations or movements:


feeling ‘overstretched’ or ‘under pressure’, ‘reaching’ for a goal, ‘catching’ or ‘catching onto’ something, ‘running away’ from something’, ‘moving on’ and ‘getting ahead’, ‘falling behind’ or ‘going downhill’, ‘falling apart’ or putting oneself ‘together’, ‘shaking’ with fear or ‘shaking’ something off, ‘shifting’ one’s attitude, ‘carrying’ a heavy burden, ‘grasping’, ‘hanging onto’, ‘losing one’s grip on’ or ‘letting go’ of something etc.

These are examples of a whole range of expressions used to refer to ‘mental’ states which at the same time refer to muscular states. For example we speak of feeling tense or relaxed, or else nervous or restless – hence wanting to fidget or make use of our muscles in some way.

Similarly, a state of high tension or anxiety may be felt muscularly – for example as a ‘tension headache’, a ‘knot’ in the stomach, a ‘flutter’ in the heart etc. This is not surprising given that our heart, stomach and intestines are made up of muscle – as are our respiratory and vocal organs.

If someone is drunk or drugged is it their mind or their muscles that may make them feel disoriented or lose their balance? Perhaps it is both and neither. Perhaps it is a person’s overall or underlying bodily mood or tone of feeling which finds expression both in muscle tone and in mental states.

Hence also the expression ‘highly strung’ – which can apply to both a person’s nerves and their muscles, but is drawn from the language of stringed musical instruments – and suggests an understanding of the human body or ‘organism’ itself as a musical instrument – the meaning of the Greek word organon.

Finally, both our language and our muscles and joints can be more or less rigid and stiff or articulate – allowing us to freely communicate or ‘articulate’ ourselves through both verbal speech, different tones of voice and ‘body speech’. Could it be then, that both illness and language, bodily symptoms and bodily figures of speech – what Foucault called “the essence of a disease” and the “essence of a word” – are one and the same? Could it be that illness gives this common essence the form of symptoms, whilst language gives it the form of bodily metaphors or figures of speech? Could it be that the body itself is a not a biological machine to be repaired but a living language of the human being. For verbal language, as we have seen, is itself largely ‘body language’ – made up of figures of speech rooted in bodily sensations and states.

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