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I am writing a sci fi novel, which is set 100 years into the future (2120). In it, one of my characters is a scientist and investigates a case of SHC where a victim was seen with flames coming from their abdomen/gut, before passing. He writes a report, and he says that in olden times (our present period), it was called Spontaneous Human Combustion, but now it is known by [medical sounding term] instead.

Specifically the cause involves a static spark in malfunctioning nerves in the gut, or a build up of a liquid called diphosphane, also due to a biochemical malfunction in the gut, which can act as an ignition source for the other flammable compounds which exist in the gut.

I am looking for a less paranormal, more formal medical term for SHC.

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    $\begingroup$ Mecial terms are often based on latin - there's a bunch of english-latin dictionaries on theweb, you can just try to reverse translate the words and build something that sounds good to you $\endgroup$ – Nicolai Jan 29 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ Bowel ignition syndrome? $\endgroup$ – Luis Jan 29 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ Acute hyperthermic candescence. $\endgroup$ – John O Jan 29 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that in the phrase "spontaneous human combustion" all three words are learned borrowings from Latin. You cannot really get more formal that that. The native English form would be "sudden man-burning". $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 29 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ It might interest you to know that SHC is a real, documented and researched phenomenon. It occurs when a person's clothing is set on fire in an enclosed area, and the person is either dead or dies shortly thereafter. The clothing acts as a wick for the person's body fat, and the enclosed area suppresses rapid combustion of the surroundings due to lack of oxygen. The effect is that the body burns wherever it is clothed, but unclothed extremities are left relatively intact. Victims are frequently smokers who heavily imbibe alcohol or other drugs, and are incapacitated or killed by them. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Jan 30 at 10:09

19 Answers 19

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Just calling it Knowles Syndrome would probably be just fine and consistent with current practice.

But if you really want to go with sudden-onset acute hyperthermia, feel free.

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    $\begingroup$ Sudden onset acute hyperthermia is amazing $\endgroup$ – Daniel B Jan 29 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ It has the same feel as high velocity lead poisoning $\endgroup$ – Jakob Lovern Jan 30 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ Or “rapid unscheduled disassembly” $\endgroup$ – Jim Garrison Jan 30 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ Or my personal favorite: Sudden sniffing death syndrome $\endgroup$ – Tsugihagi Jan 30 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ Sudden Onset Acute Idiopathic Hyperthermia. $\endgroup$ – Will Crawford Jan 30 at 13:43
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Anaphlexis, or autoanaphlexis

(Thanks to AlexP for corrections)

I got it by going into Google Translate and trying to get latin for combustion. It was combustione, I didn't like that. So I tried greek next (the other language that is used for most scientific terms). Didn't like the first term I got (kaf-si), but the second one sounded sciency. It was "anaphlexy" (with the "x" sounding like "ks", so pronnounced more like "anaphleksy").

For the record I can't read greek to save my life. The actual word came out as ανάφλεξη, I am typing what I heard when I clicked the speaker icon.

I thought that making it end in "is" would make it better due to the Rule of Cool. Turns out that ancient greek had final "is" as a thing, so no RoC needed here. Thanks Tanner Swett for the info!


But seriously, nobody does it better than marvel. If you tell someone who is neither a scientist nor a Marvel fan that you are a physicist and that you are doing some experimental research on Pym Particles, they might just fall for it. You think that even Marvel fans wouldn't be fooled by this kind of stuff anymore, but then Jonathan Hickman got them doing some googling when he put this dialogue in House of X:

A dialogue from House of X #3: -"Well, we could wake her up now if we wanted, but eve at the exponential rate she's learning, she still has a while before we're comfortable that she's evolved past the *Heller-Faust* line." -"Good. Who need an A.I. that's a potential sociopath?"

Notice the term Heller-Faust line. I am a computer scientist. A.I. is not my area, but I know enough about it to usually detect disinformation or bullshit when I hear laypeople talking about it. But I had to look that one up, even phone a colleague to know if that was a real thing!


The point being that you don't have to be accurate. You can pull a term from a body cavity and still make it work. Without hitting search engines anymore, I thought of a few more terms that you could use:

  • Autopyrolysis (actually means "self-breaking through fire or high temperature")
  • Phoenixalia
  • Mors Ignea ("fiery death"). By the way I totally need to assemble a metal band with this name now.
  • Fogosa (just means "hot girl" in my latin-based native language, but your audience might never find out)
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    $\begingroup$ There cannot be any "f" in Greek words as received into scientific or technical English. (It's philosopher and photographer, not *filosofer or *fotografer. And yes, in some Romance languages we do write f, e.g., filozof and fotograf in Romanian; but English wants Roman phs.) And mortis ignis means death's fire; a fiery death would be mors ignea. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 29 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP thanks, I've edited the post to make it better :) $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 29 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ It looks like final -is in Ancient Greek (from which we get such words as διάγνωσις, diagnosis) became -i in Modern Greek (such as διάγνωση, diagnosi). So the Ancient Greek form of ανάφλεξη, anaphlexi, presumably would have been anaphlexis after all. No Rule of Cool needed. $\endgroup$ – Tanner Swett Jan 30 at 3:58
  • $\begingroup$ @TannerSwett thanks for the info :), I'll edit it into the question. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 30 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ @TannerSwett: It is indeed ἀνάφλεξις. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 30 at 8:20
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Try Tachypyrolysis

From the Greek "tach-" (rapid), "pyro-" (fire), and "-lysis" (separating). The prefix "tachy-" is already well known in the medical realm (as in tachycardia or tachyphylaxis). "Pyrolysis" is itself a common term in the chemistry community, where it describes the thermal decomposition of a material at a high temperature.

Who knows, maybe in the future the medical community got tired of Latin/Greek and started using Esperanto instead. If that happened, you could use a term like Netakorpofaj (from netaŭga "inappropriate", korpo "body", fajro "fire"). Call it "NKF" for short. The implication that there exists an appropriate body fire is merely a coincidence.

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If you want to name something in a realistic sounding way, you should think about how this name came to be.

The first question is who named it? If something was named by a scientific organisation, the name would be done in a very specific way. Diseases are very often named by the first patient. This does not mean the first person in history who ever got the disease, it's the first patient who's case was properly described in medical literature. As this is more of an affect, and not a real medical condition the actual combustion would most likely be John Doe's Syndrome. Sometimes instead of the patient, the doctor describing the disease uses his own name, but the effect is the same.

If this was described more in a lab than in the field, without a real person involved the name could be Latin. It could also just be an acronym for normal English words. SPH could be common. There could also be two name, one for the condition that leads to the gas buildup, and the other for the actual combustion, similar to HIV and AIDS.

The name could also come from more colloquial sources. In this case the name could be simpler. Depending on the source something this could be anything from SPH to Go-Boom-Disease. Think about how reached the media and made this name popular. A real world example would be Swine Flue.

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    $\begingroup$ Swine Flue: An unintended consequence of a visit from The Hogfather. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 29 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs I laughed out loud at that :D this is so appropriate, due to some narrative resonance it might even be the real origin of that disease's name! $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 29 at 16:52
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Autogenic thoracic sarcopyrrosis (ATS)? I've mixed Greek and Latin, I think, but that ought to translate as something like 'self-generating chest flesh-fire'.

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    $\begingroup$ Self-made chest flesh reddening? (American spelling; Bristish spelling would be pyrrhosis.) "Burning" is πύρωσις (pyrôsis), one single r. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 29 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP — Ok. But 'burning' makes it sound a bit too much like hemorrhoids... 😀 $\endgroup$ – Ted Wrigley Jan 29 at 18:24
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What about the Wick Effect which is theorized to be the cause of many real life reported SHC events. Basically after ingintion, the human body is kept aflame due to melting fat continuing to fuel the fire, and several cases of unexplained burning of a human body are thought to be caused by an accidental igition of clothing that burns and soaks in melting body fat until most of the body is burned away (With only the feet and occasionally hands being the only parts of the body to remain due to both parts having very low body fat compared to the rest of the body.

The typical ignition source is usually a cigarette and typical victims are elderly or otherwise exhibit a low mobility as the process is slow to start and consume the body.

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Idiopathic thermal decomposition. “Idiopathic” is a medical term meaning “of unknown origin” and adds a touch of real medical terminology. Or, perhaps, idiopathic pyrolysis, though “pyrolysis “ has a meaning that doesn’t quite match (burning in an inert atmosphere).

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Either "Edith Syndrome" or "Ado Syndrome", based on the name of Lot's wife from Judeo-Christian tradition. In that tradition, she turns back to view the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, resulting in her being turned into a pillar of salt.

If the combustion converts the victim's body into a pillar of ash, with charred flesh still attached to an intact blackened skeleton, then the parallel to the ancient story might be justified.

Alternatively, to get closer to the ashy remains of the combustion victims, you might call it "Pompaeii Syndrome" based on the compacted ash human simulacrums which were found at the base of Mt. Vesuvius.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the biblical reference. +1 $\endgroup$ – Marvin the Paranoid Android Jan 30 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ How about Icarus syndrome ? $\endgroup$ – Will Crawford Jan 30 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ @WillCrawford: That's just a bad case of sunburn. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Jan 30 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ @WillCrawford, Great Idea! There is even an opportunity for a little morbid humor... "Icarus In-flame-ation". $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jan 30 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ Yes ... hyper-inflammatory bowel syndrome. $\endgroup$ – Will Crawford Jan 30 at 16:35
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Medical terms usually come from Latin or Greek (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCCY1LuE2-k). So, a good way to make up the name of a condition is to just concatenate latin/greek words at random... kinda.

Endo means "from the inside". Thermolysis is a rapid chemical reaction caused by heat that ruptures molecules (from Greek therme- (heat) and -lysis (to unbind))

Fwoosh! Endothermolysis: a rapid internal chemical reaction caused by heat. You can replace "thermo" with "pyro" (fire) to make it more explicitly related to fire. Also it sounds cooler.

Endopyrolysis.

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What's wrong with the actual medical & scientific terms already in use for this anecdotal phenomenon?

  • spontaneous human combustion
  • preternatural combustion
  • spontaneous combustion

All these terms show up in various Good Sources (Jstor, Lancet, NIH, etc)

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For what you are describing, probably severe sodium poisoning. Here's a material data sheet https://cdn2.lasecsa.co.za/pdf/sds/Sodium%20Metal.pdf

Short version : light metals - sodium, lithium react with water to produce hydrogen gas, oxygen gas, and enough heat to self-ignite. When I was younger, it was a cool chemistry demonstration to throw pieces of metallic sodium into a pond and watch them explode.

Because it is so reactive, light metals in metallic form are usually encased in some kind of material that keeps water off - oil being common. Cellophane gelcaps loaded with a mineral oil and metallic sodium grains might do the same thing and allow ingestion.

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This answer is in part a frame challenge.

"Spontaneous Human Combustion" has been scientifically shown to be no such thing.

It is a characteristic of fatty meats that if they are wrapped in cloth, which is then set alight in an enclosed area with a low rate of oxygen ingress that they smoulder, the fat melting and burning on the surface of the cloth like wax rising up a candle wick. In fact, this can lead to an otherwise non-flammable substance being able to burn.

This can be demonstrated fairly readily with an uncooked leg of pork and some woolen cloth. Wrap the pork in the wool, then light it in an enclosed space. The fat melts, and wicks through the wool where it burns.

Historical cases of SHC have in fact been cases where the victim has died at around the time that the fire starts - often from some source of ignition that a healthy, living person would reflexively avoid, like a cigarette, a heater or a cooker. However, being very ill or recently deceased, the "victim" is unable to move away or extinguish the fire, and if still alive when set alight, they die from the trauma shortly thereafter.

There have been recorded cases exactly like the OP's, where a person enters a room to see a flame suddenly erupt from the victim. This has been attributed to the fact that the victim merely smoulders when in a closed, oxygen-deprived room, but when the witness opens the door and enters, there is a sudden rush of oxygenated air into the room, which causes the smouldering fire to flare up in just that manner.

So... in such a case, a coroner might conclude that the victim met their fate as a result of some non-fire-related reason, or perhaps was incapacitated by some other cause, which enabled their clothed body to be set alight, causing their death.

The technical term applied to the case would therefore not be a medical term at all, but a fireman's description: a smouldering fire enabled by the wick effect, occurring in an enclosed, unventilated space, which upon the door being opened and admitting fresh, oxygenated air, caused the slow-burning oxygen-starved fire to flare up and burn more rapidly.

Any movement that might be attributed to the death of a living person at that specific moment where the smouldering flame flares up might be more accurately attributed to the suddenly increased heat of combustion causing post-mortem tissue contraction, movements and even vocalizations.

Any medical terminology used would be to describe (if there were sufficient remains to successfully autopsy) the cause of death or the cause of sufficient incapacity so that the victim could be unable to react to being burned sufficiently to avoid their death.

This could be any of a great many causes, from heart attack to a drug overdose, and is beyond the scope of this question.

The OP need not invent any implausible internal source of combustion unless future advances in technology enable a person to be poisoned in such a way that enables true spontaneous combustion from within.

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  • $\begingroup$ “This can be demonstrated fairly readily with an uncooked leg of pork and some woolen cloth.” WARNING: Cases of SHC have included dead pets due to CO poisoning – do not do this without a ventilator. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Jan 30 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ This seems like it kinda misses the point; given that OP provided us with their in-world mechanism for SHC. $\endgroup$ – JMac Jan 30 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JMac Hence the warning that this is a frame challenge. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Feb 2 at 14:57
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If you want to describe the effects of SHC in a medical sounding way, you might consider a term like pernicious exothermia and let the reader do a 2+2

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    $\begingroup$ Not to be confused with malignant hypothermia which doesn't generally involve flames at all. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Jan 30 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime - MH is actually quite pernicious. Most people who suffer an attack don't know they have the condition until afterwards when they're told about it. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Jan 30 at 16:31
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I'm thinking something along the lines of Exanthropyromortis?

Ex - outward (as in explosion) Anthro - Human (as in anthropology) Pyro - Fire Mortis - Death.

Or on the same lines but in two words Exanthropic Pyromortis (exanthropic as in used to be a human .... ) (sorry that's really grim)

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There is no 'scientific' term for Spontaneous Human Combustion, as it is not a real condition.

The best advice I can give you is to use your creativity to create a term that fits your book best.

  1. Look for synonyms.

  2. Write twenty-five of your favorites in a list.

  3. Combine them to make a term that fits the style of your story best.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! Spontaneous human combustion may not be a real condition in our world, but it is a real condition in the fictional world the OP is building, so please answer the question with that in mind. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Jan 29 at 14:47
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Rapid Onset Unexpected Sparkler Syndrome.

Bonus The Princess Bride reference gratis.

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    $\begingroup$ Fortunately, it doesn't completely kill you. It only leaves you mostly dead. $\endgroup$ – mrog Feb 1 at 0:46
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In our cells, we mammals, and I am assuming we are all mammals reading this, oxidize glucose to provide the energy needed to live.

Certainly, the topic of cellular metabolic chemistry is vastly complicated and any attempts of mine at explanation would be, by very definition, overly simplistic, base and unseemly sketches of cosmic beauty. But, crudely put, glucose is sugar and oxidation is combustion. Normally well regulated and self-limiting, producing just enough ATP, the true fuel of our cellular scale lives, that our cells may carry out the million tiny miracles for which they are responsible.

Since the oxidation is exothermic, if it became, momentarily, less well regulated, because of confusion in mitochondrial and glycolytic pathway communications, then it might be termed Runaway Glucose Oxidosis or Catastrophic Glucose Reduction or Glucose Reduction Avalanche.

Note: Reduction is used in the chemistry sense of the word, a chemical reaction that involves the gaining of electrons by one of the atoms involved in the reaction between two chemicals. The term refers to the element that accepts electrons, as the oxidation state of the element that gains electrons are lowered. This was not an attempt to be more accurate but because oxidation is a harsh jagged word and reduction is nicer, rhymes with seduction and subduction.

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I kind of like the sound of "self-ignatory flatulence". I mean, just imagine the conversation:

Doctor: I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones, but your husband is gone.
Mrs Jones: Gone?!? What do you mean, "gone"?!?!?
Doctor: I'm very sorry, Mrs. Jones. There was nothing we could do.
Mrs. J: But...but...but...
Doc: If it means anything, it was very quick. He never felt a thing, I'm sure.
Mrs. J: But...just this morning...he sat down like he always does, and he asked me to
        make him breakfast, just like I always do. He had eggs, and beans, and refried 
        beans, and roasted beans, and canned beans, and chili with beans, and black 
        beans, and navy beans, and pinto beans, and beans-beans-beans-beans-beans! 
        Beans, beans, and more beans! That man *loved* his beans! And now, he's 
        GONE!!!! By the way, what did he die from?
Doc: Ummmm...self-ignatory flatulence.
Mrs. J: You mean...?
Doc: Yep. Death Farts.
Mrs. J: <swoons>
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Egopyronova

Pyroscade

Egoexohypthermia

Lots of scientific therms are just going from the common denominator to the specific denominator in order from start to finnish.

Like Birds WithLongWings ThathaveSmallBeaks WithYellowTip - often added with a name of discoverer or location of discovery if that location makes it unique.

So Ego (Person) (Exo) (Exotherm reaction) (hyper) (Huge) thermia (Temperature) is basically a attempt to construct such a word based on the rules above.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you explain why you believe this is a suitable name? $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Jan 30 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ Is this one answer, or three? $\endgroup$ – MSalters Jan 30 at 13:55

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