Tuesday 24 January 2017

Spelinge matters

At The Institute, we're launching a new degree in B&D - brewing and distilling. Last week we had a meeting to decide what essential equipment had to be acquired before the first intake of students in September 2017. Someone had produced a list of kit - mills, mash baths, sieves, testers and analysers; and our new lecturer in the subject explained why such-a-thing was vital but such-another could be bodged up with existing equipment. My redoubtable Head of Department said something like "What about this (I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing this right) fiabilimeter? It costs €4,000". I was now wildly out of my depth; I can haggle about a mash-tun with the best of them and have brewed wine from old socks, but I'd managed my whole fermenting life without even knowing that a fiabilimeter existed. New Brewer elaborated on the pros and cons of the thing until one of our engineers asserted that a friabilimeter had some potential use in his Process Tech course. Oh <typo alert> fRiabilimeter? that probably measures how friable materials like malt are. Maybe French wrestlers use a faibilimeter to see how feeble their opponents are; but neither my HoD, nor me, nor La Belle France, nor you need to know what a fiabilimeter does, because it doesn't.

When I started teaching in The Institute, they loaded me with such a mad diversity of courses that I would often get caught with new words whose meaning I found to be completely opaque. I was worried because I thought the students expected omniscience from me and I would trying Google up the definitions in the 8 minutes available before class. Sometimes these words gave me a sense of wrong-wrong-nearly-right as I tried to recall my undergraduate general biology lessons. Almost always, they were spelinge errurs, and I spent several subsequent days chewing my beard with frustration that these things were wrong and might, accordingly, give students the wrong word.
Then I relaxed, the students' spelling was far more patchy than any manual. I was not there to show them that I knew everything - which might be bad for their morale - my role was rather to facilitate their finding out about the natural world.

One of the peculiar areas in which I had to acquire competence was teaching human physiology to pharmacy technicians. I inherited a mess of notes which over the years I have cast in mine own image. At the end of most sections, I have a list of drugs which are relevant to the system just discussed. I talk briefly about each drug, what's it for and how it works physiologically. A couple of weeks ago, I asked the class, rather petulantly, if they ever made a mistake when sent into the store room to retrieve a packet of an unpronounceable medicine because they're spelinge is not grate. There was a frisson of recognition through the room: seems that almost everyone had been scolded by The Pharmacist for getting the wrong drug at some stage. I mentioned this to my colleague, who is The Pharmacist in one of the shops in town, and she said everyone in the trade has done this and that the required extra attention to detail is what pays pharmacists the big bucks <not>. When some bright spark in marketing at MegaPharm decides that all the packing needs to be redesigned it is a huge pain behind the community phamacy counter because everyone has to read the labels carefully rather than relying on the familiar gestalt. In the pharmacy trade homophony,  exacerbated by crap hand-writing on prescriptions, rushed reading etc. has real potential for problems. So here is some advice to minimise error:
  • Write clearly
  • Never use a trailing zero: 1mg, not 1.0mg because easily misread as 10mg [prev similar]
  • Specify the drug strength, e.g. 100mg
Promazine v Promethazine; a dopamine blocker and sedative v an anti-histamine
Tamoxifen v Tenoxicam; the breast cancer therapy v a handy NSAID
Vinblastine v Vincristine; well at least these two are both for cancer chemotherapy
Some drugs are just hopeless tongue-twisters: I always stumble over adalimumab [you try saying it] the anti-inflammatory anti-TNF biologic. It might just as well be wuggawuggamamamamamab. Why this matters is obvious. There are enough errors made in the world of drugs without adding avoidable spelling mistakes.

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