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Diagnosis dilemma: second opinion succeeds

[5 Nov 2014] It seems the customary use of ‘diagnose’ and ‘diagnosis’, words that come from the Greek for ‘to distinguish’ or ‘to know apart’, is on its last legs. Everywhere in the mass media, a shift of emphasis has triumphed. The traditional use is summed up in the Encarta World English Dictionary (1999): ‘Diagnose means discover or identify. Thus “flu was diagnosed” is correct, and “she was diagnosed with flu” is not correct.’ To help explain the meaning of ‘diagnosis’, the dictionary gives the example ‘The diagnosis is flu.’

But Encarta’s ‘correct’ way is certainly not how ‘diagnose’ is generally used today. Here are a few examples:

  • Mrs Burton… was a rep for a travel company before she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. (The Times, 13 Oct)
  • In 2013 [Lynda Bellingham] announced she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. (Daily Telegraph, 21 Oct)
  • In 2003, [Jack Bruce]… was diagnosed with liver cancer. (Daily Telegraph, 27 Oct)
  • One in 10 MS patients wrongly diagnosed or missed altogether (headline). Thousands of people may be being wrongly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or not being diagnosed at all, health experts warned. (Daily Telegraph, 8 Oct)
  • Encarta would have the authors say things like, ‘…before an aggressive form of breast cancer was diagnosed [in her]’ and or ‘Liver cancer was diagnosed [in him]’, which seems an awkward construction to the modern ear.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Robert Burchfield, showed which way the wind was blowing when it said in 1996: ‘Properly used to mean “to make a diagnosis of (a disease, a mechanical fault, etc)”… but now often used with a person as object (“a baby who was incorrectly diagnosed as having died before birth, only to be delivered alive, but paralysed, 17 hours later”.’ And the New Oxford Dictionary of English took a similar line in 1998, declaring ‘diagnose – (usually “be diagnosed”) identify the nature of the medical condition of (someone): “she was finally diagnosed as having epilepsy”.’ [cont]

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