What Do You Call Your Diabetes?


As my friends know, I am a huge dork — especially when it comes to language. Thanks to some excellent middle and high school Latin teachers (and subsequent stints as a Latin teacher myself), I have an obsessive need to break down words into their roots. Did you know, for example, that spiro is Latin for “breathe” — and is the root for words like inspire (to breathe into), expire (to breathe out), conspire (to breathe together) and perspire (to breathe through)? Did you know that limin is Latin for threshold, and so a subliminal message is a message that slips under the threshold? Did you know that cras means “tomorrow,” and thus “procrastinate” literally means to make for tomorrow? I could go on. Point being, I love language, and I spend way too much time thinking about words.

I bring this up because of a response I got for my essay last week about living with Type 1. A reader commented that she did not refer to herself as having diabetes because she thinks it contributes to people’s confusion between Type 1 and Type 2. As she explained, “Since most people hear diabetes and automatically think of Type 2 diabetes (a true metabolic disease of insulin resistance), by mentioning diabetes, you are in fact causing some of the confusion.” Instead, she prefers not to mention that she has diabetes, or to call it by a different name — she suggests autoimmune insulin deficiency.

I’m interested to hear what people think about this. I’m very open with the fact that I have diabetes, and I’m also very aggressive in explaining to people the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 (and I don’t hold people’s confusion against them — why would you know the difference if you didn’t have diabetes?). I agree that it’d be nice if the diseases had more descriptive names, given that their causes are quite different — but at the end of the day, the results and complications of the two diseases are pretty much the same.  That makes it hard to come up with a good name — especially since most Americans don’t know what insulin is to begin with. (By the way, the word insulin comes from the Latin insula, meaning islands, in reference to the clusters of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.)

So while I understand the reader’s concern, I feel like creating a different name for my disease might actually add to the public’s confusion about diabetes (also, if you shorten “autoimmune insulin deficiency syndrome,” you get AIDS — not really the direction I’d be going for).

Besides, I kind of like the name diabetes. Its full name is diabetes mellitus, which is made from the Greek words for  “sweet” and “siphon” (the mellitus part is the same root as mellifluous, or the French word for honey, miel). You know, like you’ve got lots of sugar in your blood so you start peeing all the time to try to siphon it out? This may sound weird, but I think that’s kind of nice.

On a separate note, I was looking at my cottage cheese container this morning — my new breakfast of choice, which happens to be much easier to deal with than plain Greek yogurt — and noticed that its label said that it was “made from the milk of human kindness.” I don’t even know what to think about this. Is it a mixed metaphor? A Shakespeare reference? Or just weird ad copy? Regardless, it kind of grossed me out.

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12 years ago

I think the name confusion can be very useful; after all, with so few Type 1 Diabetics, I would very rarely get any recognition or understanding if it had its own name. But, since the medical taxonomy throws us in much large group of people that is all Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetics, I invariably get a response like, “Oh yeah, my mom/grandmother/brother-in-law is a diabetic!” And that of course leads the the question, “…But you don’t look like you eat unhealthily…?” which in turn starts the conversation in which we can explain the difference between Type 1 and… Read more »


[…] news alone is putting me in a good mood. But what’s more,  I also got some great feedback to yesterday’s post about what to call your diabetes, and have to give a special shout-out to a reader named Amanda, […]

Laura G.
Laura G.
13 years ago

I loved your NYTimes essay, the comments were fascinating, and that comment you quoted was one of my favorite ones. Great question. I do tell people I have Type1diabetes (one word!) However, in everyday life I find that you get about one sentence to explain your health condition before the subject naturally changes, or before you have to get on a soapbox and make the conversation all about you and your illness. (I prefer not to do that, ever.) My one sentence is usually something like, “I wear this pump (pointing) and test my blood sugar because my body doesn’t… Read more »


[…] don’t want to start a war of the nerds or anything, but since Catherine Price brought up her love of Latin, it seems like a fine time to confess that I too am a language mega-dork.  In college and grad […]

Jessica Apple
13 years ago

Cottage cheese is definitely much easier to handle than yogurt.  Mix it with ground flax seeds and almonds, and you’ll be full for at least half the day.  Regarding milk of human kindness- barf!  I’m a lactating, and so I know a whole lot about human milk, but…actually, I take back the barf and make it a triple barf!  That phrase has no business on a container of cottage cheese.
I kind of like DiabetesOne! (with an exclamation point).  Makes it sound exciting.  Or we could go for cutesy and call it Sweetpea.

13 years ago

Oof, that is gross.  How can the mind not pause at “human” and go ahead with the image of cottage cheese made from the milk of humans? I can’t judge the author of your cottage cheese container too harshly, I myself write weird ad copy for the dollars of human kindness.  So, if I had to rename my t1 diabetes?  Pancredicament?   “I have a pancredicament and must leave this meeting to eat something despite the clear presence of bagels.” Or maybe we should assert the type ONE more, like a sports drink.  “Hey guys, I’ve got DiabetesONE!” I don’t… Read more »

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