Monday, March 11, 2019

A Visit to the Clinic

A few years ago a native islander walked into our local clinic and announced that she was suffering from the distemper. The receptionist, who had moved to the island from the mainland, duly noted the complaint as the islander took her seat in the waiting area. But the receptionist was troubled. "I thought only dogs were afflicted with distemper," she said to herself. Curious, she did a bit of research. Soon enough she discovered that distemper is, in fact, "a contagious and serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of puppies and dogs." But still, she thought, maybe it is possible for humans to be infected also. Who knows?

Some days later the receptionist met the islander and inquired about how she was doing. In the course of the conversation the receptionist discovered that her neighbor did not think she was afflicted with a canine malady. Ocracoke islanders, especially of the older generations, use the term "distemper" to mean any troublesome or serious ailment like a bad cold or flu. 

In fact, if you do a thorough search for the definition of distemper you will discover that "ailment" and "disorder" are also listed.

Coincidentally, I was recently reading about early American history. In early 1775 a deadly smallpox epidemic began to sweep through the colonies. By summer and fall this highly contagious disease was threatening to infect soldiers in the Continental Army. Founding Father, John Adams, commented that "The Small Pox is an enemy more terrible in my imagination, than all others. This distemper will be the ruin of every army from New England if great care is not taken."

This is one more example of  how Ocacoke's long isolation from the mainland resulted in the retention of peculiar words and phrases from the colonial period...some still in use in the 21st century.

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4 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:53 PM

    Philip YEARS ago you were updating an old house you had in order to rent it out. Do you still have that house? is it still for rentable? It's a long story but friends asked me about a weekly rental. For some reason I thought about the one you had and talked about in your earlier posts. Thanks

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  2. The house you are talking about is my grandparents' house. It was built around 1865, and I did rehabilitate it, but not for rental. It is the house I live in.

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  3. Anonymous10:34 AM

    My mistake, sorry, thanks for the reply.

    ReplyDelete
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