In David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, in the context of a list of medical ailments reference is made to "Cantor's sign (dextral)" and "Cantor's sign (sinistral)". Does anyone have any idea what this is referring to? I assume it has something to do with the hands, but found no mention of it anywhere on the internet.

  • 2
    I'd be willing to bet that he made it up, like "dihedral lordosis" and "Kern-Borglundt syndrome."
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 16:09
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    It's also potentially an allusion to Georg Cantor, the mathematician known for his work on infinity, which was another interest of DFW (and [sort of] the topic of Everything and More). Then there's the link between that and the title of his more famous novel -- intertextualities galore, for anyone wanting to delve into it.
    – user13141
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 16:56
  • @onomatomaniak Yes, exactly. It is just the kind of thing he'd do.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 17:51
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    This might be a double pun on the infinity symbol, or lemniscate, “∞”, which is identical when reversed.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Apr 16, 2013 at 5:05
  • Also Cantor studies infinite sets so Cantors sign could (to me) easily be referencing the infinity symbol. Can anyone relate that to dextral?
    – Tips
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 2:22

2 Answers 2


KitFox is probably right. "Sign" can be used in medical names of symptoms used for diagnosis. It's likely the author made one up using that template. See this list for real examples: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_eponymous_medical_signs

The terms in parentheses are not referring directly to the hands, but rather which side of the body the symptom occurs on ("dextral" for the right side, "sinistral" for the left).


This is a very tenuous but possible connection. "Dextral" is also the name of a cough suppressant drug containing the dissociative hallucinogen dxm, which in my experience, allows something like a vision of the infinite, and well, DFW knew his drugs.

  • Tenuous yes, and that doesn't explain sinistral.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 16:59

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