Thirty years ago, a global pandemic got a handle. Gokulnath Ammanathil and Sathyaraj Venkatesan retrace the journey that resulted in the acronym “AIDS”.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet,” states William Shakespeare’s Juliet to reflect the arbitrary and symbolic nature of language. Shakespeare, perhaps,would have thought twice to write these oft-quoted lines had he anticipated the cultural politics surrounding the naming of AIDS. On the eve of completing three decades since its official emergence as a global pandemic, it would be interesting to revisit the struggles over the naming of the AIDS syndrome.

AIDS, the first major illness known by an acronym, officially came into existence with the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control) report in MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) on June 5, 1981. The contradictory reports published in various media in the initial phase of the epidemic evoked irrational feelings of dread and fear, leading the syndrome to be called AFRAIDS (Acute fear Regarding AIDS). Adding to this misconception and a lack of an objective assessment of the disease was the wrangling between AIDS virus discoverers Robert Gallo of the American National Cancer Institute and Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. While the Americans named the virus HTLV III, the French named it LAV (Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus). Such scientific inconclusiveness also contributed to a delay in naming the syndrome.

Given the absence of a clinically acceptable name for the syndrome, the mainstream media and bio-medical discourses invented various terms to designate the disease. However, these names, coined without any foresight, had wider political, social and cultural ramifications. For instance, since the early victims of AIDS according to the MMWR were active homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs, and heroin users, the illness was unofficially rendered as the “4 H disease,” referring to the four communities affected by the crisis. Again, with the growing incidence of AIDS among the gay community The Lancet named the illness “gay compromise syndrome,” followed by another provisional acronym GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). In mainstream media, the fear about the syndrome combined with the prejudice about homosexuality earned names such as “gay plague,” “gay pneumonia” and “gay cancer.” What is at stake in this generalisation is not only the callous implication of the gay community, which led to their increased criminalisation, but also widespread identity-based victimisation.

Harsh judgement

If medical journals and mainstream media invoked names that nailed the gay community, then no different were the terms coined by the dominant cultural discourses, especially the religious and conservative right. Given their social conservatism and medieval moralism, it is not surprising that the syndrome was christened “Wrath of God Syndrome” (WOGS). Worse, not only did WOGS provide the Reganite right a pretext to castigate sodomy but also paved way to neutralise the gains of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In the same retributive vein, many also expanded AIDS to mean “America’s Ideal Death Sentence,” and “Nature’s way of cleansing the house.”

By late 1982, with the rise of non-homosexual AIDS cases (children, women, and heterosexual men), along with political reprisal and public pressure, the scientific community at a conference in Washington D.C., recommended a name for the syndrome — AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Even when the medical fraternity approved AIDS, thus putting to rest the race for naming the syndrome, the disease was variously conceptualised in different countries. AIDS in France and Spain is known as SIDA. Perhaps, Montagnier’s claim as the discoverer of the AIDS virus might have prompted the French to use the word SIDA instead of AIDS. In China it is known as “Ai Zi Bing”, while in Africa it is popularly called SLIM, owing to the wasting of the PLWAs body (People Living with AIDS).

Cultural politics surrounding the naming of AIDS illustrates that naming is not a mere symbolic exercise but a process that entails concrete practices. In the case of AIDS, the initial scientific inconclusiveness which prolonged the naming of the syndrome resulted in the production of unfortunate acronyms and designations. Part of the AIDS tragedy could also be attributed to various names which not only stigmatised AIDS forever but also aggravated homophobic acts against PLWAs. Finally, naming even affected an effective social, cultural and political response to the crisis in the early period of the epidemic.

agnathnitt@gmail.com, sathya@nitt.edu

Keywords: AIDS