Until three years ago I didn’t have any allergies. Peanuts, strawberries, bee stings, pollen, dust – bring ‘em on. Then I spent my first spring in New York City, and something about the dandelions in Central Park (or maybe it was the cherry blossoms in Brooklyn, the magnolias in Washington Square, or the pear flowers on Broadway) kicked me right in the sinuses.
The dry, stuffy feeling in my throat is only a minor nuisance. What really bothers me is that now I’m a dork. Because allergies are for dorks. That’s what I was raised to believe. Kids who stay indoors, kids who wear glasses, kids who inherited weak genetic material, kids who need an excuse not to try out for soccer – they’re the ones who have allergies.
Allergies seem to reflect a personal weakness on the part of those who suffer them, and it’s not just because of a social stigma. It’s also a linguistic convention. We talk about allergies using possessive adjectives – “my allergies,” “her allergies,” “your allergies,” but never “an allergy,” or “the allergies.” (Sometimes it’s appropriate to just say “allergies.”) If you catch a cold, it’s “a cold”—anyone else might have caught it instead. Even the most personal afflictions are described in impersonal terms—“a broken ankle,” “cancer,” “the clap.”
But we usually pair allergies with a possessive adjective. Allergies are attributed to the victim, as if it’s their own fault, their own personal weakness. In this way allergies belong to a special category of things that we assign to people who haven’t really earned them (yet), like a fifteen-year-old studying for “her” driver’s license, or a grad student explaining the requirements for “his” PhD.
I would much rather talk about “my” PhD than “my” allergies. But I guess that would make me a dork, too.