May 08, 2004

Sweet Pee

Earlier today the etymology of the Japanese word for "diabetes" came up. In Japanese diabetes is 糖尿病 [to:ɲo:bjo:], literally "sugar urine disease". To my interlocutor, this was mysterious. It actually makes a lot of sense. Diabetes is a disease in which glucose in the blood stream is unable to enter the cells that need it. As a result, the glucose is not metabolized and a great deal is excreted in the urine. The urine of diabetics is therefore sweet. At one time, tasting the patient's urine was part of a European doctor's diagnostic toolkit.

The Mandarin term is the same as in Japanese (modulo the difference in pronounciation, of course), but the Cantonese term is 尿淋 [nŷ lʌ̄m] "urine falls in torrents", reflecting the fact that the urine is not only sweet but copious. (Incidentally, there's a nice English-Chinese medical dictionary with over 31,000 terms here, but even though it is based in Hong Kong, it is in Mandarin.)

[Update: I am told by a younger Cantonese speaker that 糖尿病 is now the more common term in Cantonese. I'm guessing that this is a result of Mandarin influence.]

The sweetness of the urine of diabetics is also the explanation for the full name for diabetes in English. There are actually two quite different conditions that go by the name diabetes. The more familiar one is diabetes mellitus, where mellitus is Latin for "honeyed". The other is diabetes insipidus, "tasteless diabetes", which refers to the weak taste of the urine.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 8, 2004 12:42 AM