In my “Mishearings” posting yesteday, I quoted Oliver Sacks:

I carefully record these in a little red notebook labeled “PARACUSES” — aberrations in hearing, especially mishearings.

Readers on Facebook were unable to find a reference on the term paracuses and entertained the possibility that Sacks had just made it up. As it turns out, no, or at least not entirely. The beginning of understanding is that the term is plural; it’s Sacks’s learnèd plural of the Greek-derived technical term paracusis. And that we can find in dictionaries.

The term paracusis — with variants paracusia and paracousis (the latter with an English spelling for the vowel approximating the spelling in Greek) — is in plenty of medical dictionaries for ‘a deficiency in [the sense of] hearing’. It’s also in OED3 (June 2005):

Etymology: < Hellenistic Greek παράκουσις defect of hearing (Galen) < ancient Greek παρα- para– prefix1 + ἄκουσις hearing …, after ancient Greek παρακούειν to hear imperfectly. [note the occurrence of the term the works of in Galen, a Greek physician practicing in Rome in the 2nd century AD]

In paracusis of Willis after post-classical Latin and scientific Latin paracusis Willisii, paracusis Willisiana, all with reference to Thomas Willis (1621–75), English physician, who described the phenomenon in 1672.

Med. Disturbance or impairment of hearing; spec.  †(a) (in early use) tinnitus (obs.);  (b) (more fully paracusis of Willis) an apparent improvement in the ability to hear conversation in the presence of loud background noise, thought to be characteristic of certain types of conductive hearing loss, esp. otosclerosis. [first cite 1657 Physical Dict. for paracousis; again in 1688; then paracusis in 1794 and largely with that spelling thereafter]

I don’t know what motivated the shift from the more Greek OU spelling in English (compare, for example, acoustic) to the current U spelling, but the U spelling is aso found (as Susan Fischer noted on Facebook) in presbycusis. From Wikipedia:

Presbycusis (also spelled presbyacusis, from Greek presbys “elder” + akousis “hearing”), or age-related hearing loss, is the cumulative effect of aging on hearing. It is a progressive bilateral symmetrical age-related sensorineural hearing loss. The hearing loss is most marked at higher frequencies. Hearing loss that accumulates with age but is caused by factors other than normal aging is not presbycusis, although differentiating the individual effects of multiple causes of hearing loss can be difficult.

OED3 has yet another variant, paracousia = paracusis (first cite 1876), but (in contrast to the medical dictionaries) only with the OU spelling.

Finally, on the prefix para– here, from Michael Quinion’s affixes site, which notes (inter alia) its use for ‘something irregular, or outside what is considered normal’ (paranormal, parapsychology, parainfluenza, …). On Facebook, Lise Menn wrote about paracuses:

It’s in the regular pattern of how neurologists name ‘mis-Xes’ …, e.g. paraphasias (speech errors), paragrammatism (grammatical errors in speech), paresthesias (‘sensations’ not caused by actual stimuli) etc.

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