Ecstatic about ectasia: Author reflects on mistitled lecture

May 15, 2010

While perusing the abstract book for an upcoming ophthalmology meeting, the author came across an intriguing title.

Presumably the "s" in "ecstatic" was a typographical error. A single little letter, perhaps, but nonetheless enough to alter the meaning of the title considerably, and perhaps cause people to question the credibility of the actual work.

Which reminded me of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin started out putting food on the table as a printer. He was so smart and energetic that (among other things) he went on to:

Allegedly, people in the United States and England speak the same language. But a witticism that might be hilarious in one of those cultures will often fall flat on the other side of the Atlantic. I have learned this the hard way on more than one occasion, but the skeptical Ophthalmology Times reader need only watch a BBC comedy for ten minutes to convince oneself of the differences between what our two peoples consider to be humorous.

Franklin not only delighted people with his conversational insights and humor in both America and England, but also in France when he served as ambassador during the Revolutionary War. In a language he had to learn, he so endeared himself to the French that their government financed much of the costs of the war, the leading intellectuals and most beautiful women flocked to his home to converse with him, and people lined up along the carriage route and cried when Franklin departed to the ship that would return him to Philadelphia after eight years in France.

Because it is so difficult to be humorous and witty in a second language (my children would say I have never accomplished this feat in any language), it was enjoyable to have a table of smiling and laughing ophthalmologists listening to me explain the meaning of the phrase "talk to the hand" in Portuguese. Portuguese is a beautiful language that I have endeavored to learn this past year by listening to CDs in my car during commutes (instead of the misogynistic rap lyrics favored by most ophthalmologists).

Pleased that my efforts to bridge the linguistic and cultural divide appeared to be successful, I thought that this is the gift Franklin must have had. Then one of the Portuguese-speaking ophthalmologists explained why the dinner crowd found me so humorous. It turns out that the word for "hand" in Portuguese differs by one letter from the word I had erroneously used. While the word I employed in error is a body part, it is slang not found in any medical textbook. Ironically, the English equivalent of my mistaken word does feature quite prominently in many rap songs.

So in ophthalmology, as I was not ectatic to learn in this situation, one little letter can make a big difference.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD
Director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times. He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu