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Viral Words

Understanding the etymology of our crisis

A girl blowing on a flower to spread seeds into the wind

As the coronavirus wraps its tentacles around our planet and the number of infections and deaths burgeons, you might be wondering why this respiratory pathogen is dubbed COVID-19.

In this instance, the method of word formation is called a clipped compound. Each component of the word is shortened and strung together. CO is a clipping of corona, VI of virus, and D of disease. The 19 identifies the year the outbreak began.

Corona derives from a Greek-through-Latin word for garland, wreath, or crown. The name refers to the characteristic appearance, under an electron microscope, of virions, the infective form of the virus. These virions exhibit a fringe of large, bulbous surface projections that create an image resembling a crown, as in coronation.

Virus began life as a Latin word with the same spelling that meant “poison,” specifically the venom from a snake or spider. Virus also signified “filthy, slimy,” referring to the foul, filthy, and slimy places that caused people to become sick from contact with contaminated water and refuse.

Disease descends from Latin through Old French and originally meant “without ease.” The word’s attachment to a sense of sickness is not recorded until the very late 14th century.

Another word we’re seeing and hearing a lot these days is quarantine. The first meaning of quarantine, from the Italian quarantina, was a period of 40 days during which a widow had the right to continue living in her deceased husband’s house that was to be seized for debt.

Soon the word took on a related meaning — the 40 days in which a ship suspected of harboring disease had to remain in isolation. The arbitrary number was based on the notion that after 40 days, the disease on board would either have run its course and ended any chance of contagion or would have burst forth its ghastly fury. Finally, quarantine broadened to signify any period of sequestering, and the reference to 40 has vanished.

Then there’s the word vaccinate. For centuries, smallpox was a scourge of humanity, scarring and killing millions. Edward Jenner, a British doctor, noticed that milkmaids did not generally get smallpox and theorized that the pus in the blisters that these women developed from cowpox protected them from the more virulent smallpox. In 1796, Jenner found that inoculating people with a serum containing the lymph gland fluid of cows infected with cowpox virus prevented the similar smallpox. That’s why vaccine, vaccination, and vaccinate contain the Latin name for “cow,” vacca.

COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. The word epidemic originated with the Greek epidemia, constructed from epi, “among,” and demos, “people,” as in democracy. The pan in pandemic means “all,” as in Pan-American and panorama.

Richard Lederer headshot

Senior Bulletin columnist Richard Lederer is the author of 50 books about language, history, and humor, including his best-selling Anguished English series and his current book, The Joy of Names. He is a founding co-host of “A Way With Words,” broadcast on Public Radio. He has been named International Punster of the Year and Toastmasters International’s Golden Gavel winner. A former president of San Diego Mensa, he has received multiple National Chairman’s Service Awards.
San Diego Mensa | Joined 1991