tomato-tomatoI’d been involved in naturopathic medicine, as a student, a clinician, a professor, and a conference attendee for almost a decade before I noticed it. I was listening to a talk by Joseph Pizzorno at CCNM about gastrointestinal health and detoxification, and one of the things I found most striking wasn’t the content of his presentation (as great as it was) but his pronunciation of the word “naturopathy.” At first I assumed it was pronounced differently in the US – this hypothesis seemed plausible enough. But it dawned on me that I had heard this pronunciation before by Canadians too, but only by a handful of NDs who graduated in the 80s. And then I considered the semiotic implications.

The way Dr. Pizzorno pronounces it is linguistically closer to the root word “nature,” as it is said with a long ‘a’ sound (ney-chuh-rop-uh-thee, or neɪtʃəˈrɒpəθi). The other pronunciation (nach-uh-rop-uh-thee, or nætʃəˈrɒpəθi) connects back to the word “natural,” spoken with a short ‘a’ sound. So what’s the difference?
While the former pronunciation invokes the core naturopathic principle of the Vis Medicatrix Naturae or the healing power of nature, the latter references a natural form of medicine. Here, pronunciation can serve as a cultural signifier of the type of therapies used (natural) or the philosophical approach of facilitating the body’s ability to heal itself (nature). It can imply ‘what’ we do, or ‘how’ we do it.

Asking colleagues about this difference in pronunciation unfortunately hasn’t brought much light to the genealogy of the two ways of speaking the name of our profession. Most chalk it up to nothing more than personal preference. I am left with many questions: Does the pronunciation I am most familiar with speak to a prioritization of natural therapies over philosophical assumptions about health and disease? Which one or both were the original way of saying the word? What is the etymology of the word, and what meaning is ascribed to it now? Was there a change in common pronunciation at some point in our profession’s history? If so, what signaled or triggered this change? Can it been read as a signifier of a shift away from philosophy as the driving force behind our medicine, to a more mechanistic view of what naturopathic doctors do?

In general we are frequently taught to think about what we say, but so rarely encouraged to consider how we say it. We fail to ask ourselves about what we are saying through and between our words, in spite of observing the verbal and non-verbal communication of our patients sitting across from us in the clinical setting. Words, as much as clinical presence and healing intention, are part of the space created in the doctor-patient relationship. As naturopathic doctors, we need to reflect as a profession on what we say, but also how we say it.

ps. If someone could introduce me to Dr. Pizzorno, I’d greatly appreciate it. I’d love to have a conversation with him (or anyone else for that matter) about the semiotics and hermeneutics of naturopathic medicine.