Why is it that people no longer suffer from cancer, but always "fight" or "do battle" with it?

I am addicted to reading obituaries. I don't want to sound like a complete and utter bastard, but just once I would like to read one that ends: "During his long final illness, he was self-pitying and cowardly, insatiable in the demands he made on those around him." I know I would be. I'm bad enough when I've got a headache.

I have been reading John Keegan's classic The Face of Battle, in which he shows that a perennial problem in warfare has been to stop soldiers doing what comes naturally, which is to run away. It's not quite clear how cowardliness and courage apply to cancer. You can't run away from it and, as Larkin observed in a harrowing poem about death, courage seems mainly to involve not scaring other people by dwelling on the subject.

But the military metaphors seem difficult to escape. For a few days, I looked at death notices in the Guardian. It was reported that Julian Critchley had "died at 69 after a long battle against cancer". The metaphor has become so automatic as to be almost invisible. People don't suffer from cancer any more, they fight or do battle with it. You can see why: more than any other disease, cancer seems like an alien force invading the body, a force that has to be repelled, cut away, blown up.

A few days earlier, there had been a moving obituary by Richard Gott of the radical campaigner Jill Selbourne. Gott wrote that Selbourne was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and "resisted it with characteristic determination". But "eventually . . . it became clear that this was one battle she would not win".

It is almost too obvious to point out that people don't really "battle" against cancer. They obtain treatment and they hope that the treatment will be successful. The outcome depends on various factors, such as the stage at which the disease was diagnosed and the quality of treatment, but the will of the patient doesn't seem to be significant. The idea of the patient "fighting" the illness may seem empowering, but it can just be a way of blaming the victim and making the rest of us feel better. Perhaps it is easier to believe that somebody has died of cancer because their strength or their will was not sufficient, rather than because they were unlucky.

There was an almost comical example in the Guardian the day before, in Julia Langdon's obituary of Audrey Wise. One of the many awful things about being dead is that, if you are remembered at all, people start talking about what you "would have thought", what "would have amused you". According to Langdon, when Wise's brain tumour was diagnosed, "she was optimistic about the outcome and applied as much vigour to resisting it as she had all her life to her many political causes. As her family said yesterday: 'This was one fight she did not win.' Audrey Wise would have appreciated the irony."

I didn't know Audrey Wise, but I feel confident in saying that she would not have "appreciated the irony" in the least. In fact, she would have been bloody pissed off by it. Indeed, where is the irony in having fought for many political causes and dying of a brain tumour?

I looked up "irony" in the newly published Penguin English Dictionary: "incongruity between actual circumstances and the normal, appropriate or expected result". Most people, like Langdon, use "ironic" to mean nothing more than "slightly funny" or "rather sad". Dipping into the book, I have been struck by how hopeless dictionaries are as guides to actual usage. For example, my stepson asked me about the word "several", which sounds simple but, as he said, isn't. The PED says "more than two or a few, but fewer than many". But if that's a sufficient definition, what's wrong with the sentence, "Sean French tried to construct an argument about obituaries this week, but he gave only several examples, not enough to be convincing"? "Several people visited the Dome this week" means surprisingly many, not surprisingly few.

On the same page of the dictionary, "Seven Wonders of the World" is defined as "the seven structures considered by ancient and medieval writers to be the most magnificent of the ancient world", without actually naming them. If they were listed, readers might ask if the (mythical) Hanging Gardens of Babylon were really a structure. Was Phidias's statue of Zeus really made of ivory and gold?

And with that pedantry, I'm off to battle with the book I'm writing. And that's not a metaphor.

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun