Can we “fight” illness?

We talk about “fighting” illness and either “winning” or “losing” the “battle” against disease. Medical staff are being thanked for their efforts “on the frontline” to “combat” Covid19.

Many would argue this “fighting talk” is inappropriate.

After the UK’s Prime Minister was admitted to intensive care with Covid19, his second in command tried to reassure the British public that their PM was “a fighter.”

This led to a linguistic backlash. Had the tens of thousands of people who had already died in the UK simply not tried hard enough? What about the inequalities the pandemic was highlighting, asked journalist Emily Maitlis and others.   

Wasn’t this jovial fighting talk getting dangerously close to the language of sport, which is usually rooted in the language of battle anyway? 

According to the clinical psychologist,  Angharad Rudkin

“‘Battle terminology’ is most helpful when people are fully in control of outcomes when in a challenging or adverse situation….For example, ‘battling’ through work or ‘battling’ your way through the traffic. It becomes less helpful when a person has little control over the outcome.”

The earliest sports in our Western tradition could be brutal affairs – fights to the death as an onlooker sport (bullfighting, cockfighting, bear baiting, dog fighting) or ritualised versions of fighting traditions (archery, jousting) as a participant sport. Sometimes they were both. Early football games lasted several days, generally lacked rules and often ended in fatalities.

Just as most wars are about possession and assertion, so sport, too, is connected to privilege. Village football was played on a work-free saint’s day. Darts, billiards, even dominoes are leisure sports housed in the pub after work. On the other end of the social spectrum, legend has it that rugby was created at Rugby school; Oxford and Cambridge have their boat race; Eton has its own dedicated sport; the more intricate the rules of cricket, presumably the more it is seen as a sign of civilised refinement.

So is talking about “fighting illness” simply an admission that control of your life and your health is a privilege, not an achievement?

On 30 April, after Boris Johnson’s release from intensive care (while his press team was still talking about his “steps to defeat” the disease), Johnson had – unusually – toned down his languagefor the “simple, factual” wordings recommended by a cancer charity and others, before the pandemic.

Perhaps he was subdued by the more personal turn the disease had taken for him. Gone were the team sports and battles with rules. Covid19 had become an “unexpected and invisible mugger,” a “physical assailant.”

In other words – unfair! He had been jumped on (“assailant” comes from the Old French verb asaillir (“to jump on”) and from Latin assaliō). “Mugger” reeks of colonialism, coming into the English language in the mid 19th century, from the Hindi magar, and Sanskrit makara. It is the name of a horned water beast represented in Hindu mythology. 

“Unexpected” and “expect” come from Latin exspectare ‘look out for’, but took on the meaning of “defer action, wait” in the the mid 16th century.

Totally beyond his control then.