Etymology 101: Viruses
Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how their usages have evolved throughout history. In this series, I will be looking at English word origins and usages.
After such a long year, 2020 finally ended. With 2020, came the coronavirus pandemic. So, I thought what better way to start an etymology series than by examining the names of some common viruses that I’m sure we’ve all heard about.
Since there are so many viruses in existence, I’ve tried to only include what Google searches defined as the most common types of viruses.
The word “virus” is often tacked onto the end of viral names, “coronavirus, rhinovirus,” and therefore is an important piece of the nomenclature of viruses. So, what exactly does the word virus “mean.”
In our modern language, viruses are infective agents that only multiply inside the living cells of a host. This is why viruses cannot survive outside of the body. Furthermore, we say things like, “I have a virus,” which means we have a viral infection. And a third usage of this sense would be something like a corrupting force, analogous to how viruses corrupt our immune systems and other bodily functions.
The second sense of the word relates to computer viruses, a piece of code that harms the computer’s operations. Typically, it manifests itself like an organic virus as well. They need computers to be turned on to replicate and perform their functions, just as viruses need living hosts.
The word virus itself comes from the Latin word vīrus. I know, pretty boring. A lot of English words are rooted in Latin. We’ll see that over the course of these etymological dives. The Latin usages refers to venom or poison. Middle English co-opted this word and used it to refer first to venom, pus, and discharge from a sore (and even semen in some case).
Merriam-Webster states the first usages as 1599, but the Wikipedia page cites usages or virulent as early as 1400 (virulent meaning poisonous). The first known usage of virus as we would use it today (an agent that causes infectious disease) was recorded in 1728 (in the archaic meaning of venom). The first usage of virus in relation to computer systems was in 1972 in the novel When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold.
As science has evolved, the definition of virus has evolved with it. First from being the discharge and the “venom” that makes people sick to being an actual medical term describing the microscopic agents that bind to our cells to cause our ailments.
The virus of the year, coronavirus. We’ll obviously only focus on the “corona” part. In modern English, corona means the following:
1. [Anatomy] a body part likened to a crown, the upper part of a body part
2. [Astronomy] the rarefied gaseous envelope of the sun and other stars
3. [Botany] the inner petals of flowers such as daffodils
4. the projecting face of a classical cornice
Guess which one of the definitions is the one that gave coronaviruses their name.
1, 2, 3, or 4?
Corona itself means “crown, wreath, garland” from the Latin corona and the Greek koróna. But what do any of these definitions have to do with the coronavirus? Well, the coronavirus gets its name not from looking like a crown, but from its bulbous shape that appears like a solar corona. So… coronaviruses get their name from the gaseous envelopes of the sun and other stars. Kind of cool, not gonna lie.
The first usage of corona in English is said to be 1563 in terms of usage of toward the projecting part of cornices, with the first usage of coronavirus in print around 1968.
This one sounds scarier than it is. Rhinovirus is the name given to certain viruses that cause the monstrously devastating illness what we humans call the common cold.
The prefix “rhino-“ is also used in other words like “rhinoplasty.” Rhino- is taken from the Greek words rhis, rhin- and it simply means “nose.” Nothing fancy there. Yes, if you were wondering, this is where the animal rhinoceros gets part of its name from too.
The virus is given this name because it inhabits your nasal passages, hence the rhino/nose correlation. The virus’s optimal replication temperature just happens to be the temperature of a human nose, which is slightly below body temperature. I guess you could also call this virus “nose venom” since it often causes runny noses and sneezing. Boo.
This one is probably my favourite etymology for a virus I’ve come across so far. Influenza, or the flu as we know it, is a highly contagious virus that causes fevers, sore throats, fatigue, and muscle aches. Basically, they suck.
The medical name is orthomyxovirus, which means “straight” and “mucus” from the Greek words orthós and mýxa, respectively. This isn’t the cool part of the history of the flu, of course. This is just the origin of the boring virus name nobody uses.
Influenza, however, comes from Italian in the 18th century meaning literally “influence” due to the belief at the time that epidemics were caused or influenced by the stars. I find that to be really kind of cool. That means that the orthomyxoviruses at the time were called influenzas because of how contagious they were and that it seemed there was no earthly explanation.
To date it further back, the Italian word influenza comes from the Medieval Latin word “influentia.”
Merriam-Webster pins the first usage of influenza in 1743 and its shorthand “flu” in 1839.
Common to us as polio or poliovirus, poliomyelitis is the official name for the disease that causes initially flu-like symptoms and can progress to paralytic polio. Luckily, we have a vaccine available for this specific virus.
Poliomyelitis comes from New Latin from the Greek words polios and myelos, meaning grey and marrow, respectively. The “itis” also comes from Greek and simply denotes a relation to a disease (which is why you see it in a lot of medical stuff).
First known usage appeared in 1875 with “polio” appearing in 1911 and being the predominate way of referring to the virus. The “grey marrow” in question refers to the viruses propensity to attack and infect the spinal cord.
Rubella, Mumps, & Measles
Rubella is a measles-like disease also called the German measles and three-day measles. Rubella itself was used first in 1866 to describe this disease. Rubella takes its name from the Latin word “rubellus” which means reddish, a clear call to the reddish rash that rubella sufferers develop.
Mumps is another disease similar to rubella in family. It takes its name from the obsolete English word “mump” which meant grimace. Mump itself either came from Dutch or was imitative of a “mumpy” expression. Mumps was first recorded in 1592 according to Merriam-Webster. The term mumps likely would have come from the painful swelling, hence the “grimace -> mumps” connection.
Measles is another rash-giving virus that can cause complications and death. Even in the 2010s, tens of thousands of people still die from measles each year. The word measles likely has two roots, the first being from the Middle English word mesel which meant “leprosy or leprous.” The other root is the Middle Dutch masel which mean “pustule.” This turns into the Middle English maeseles which became measles. The first usage was recorded in the 14th century.
Luckily for us, the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine exists to help us eradicate these viruses.
Chickenpox & Smallpox
Both of these viruses share something in common just in name, the ending “pox.” The word pox (or pocks) is actually the plural form of the word pockmark, which means a pitted scar left by a pustule or pimple. Pockmark comes from the Old English word poc and the Dutch word pok.
Chickenpox and smallpox are prevalent viruses in human history. Smallpox was the disease responsible for a massive loss of life in Native Americans during colonization of the Americas. And chickenpox? It isn’t actually even a poxvirus; it’s a herpes virus. Smallpox is thankfully eradicated, but chickenpox/shingles still kills thousands a year.
Chickenpox likely owes its name to smallpox though. It was given the name “chicken” pox because of a lack in severity that was seen in smallpox. It was first noted in use in the early 18th century according to Oxford Languages, or as early as 1691 as Merriam-Webster claims.
Smallpox, however, was named in 1562. From what we know about the word pox, we can surmise that smallpox is named for the many small pustules that the virus causes, among other issues. The severity of the virus and its rashes has also been called “the Red Plague,” a clear play on the Black Plague.
Epidemic & Pandemic
An epidemic is a widespread occurrence of a disease within a community or region. Examples of some recent epidemics would be the Zika virus outbreak 2015-2016, the African Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016, and cholera outbreaks.
The word epidemic has taken a few jumps to get into the English lexicon as we know it today. Epidemic, from the French word épidémique, from épidémie, from Latin and Greek epidēmia (prevalence of a disease), from Greek epidēmios, which comes from the Greek words epi (upon) and dēmos (the people).
The adjective form of epidemic came to English in the 17th century with the noun epidemic form following soon after in 18th century.
A pandemic, on the other hand, is a worldwide epidemic, in essence. It is a disease that occurs at a global scale. This includes events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, 1918 influenza, 2009 swine flu, and the bubonic plague outbreaks.
The word pandemic, unlike epidemic, only finds its roots through Greek (likely taking a shortcut instead of passing through languages?). From the words pan and dēmos, this translates to “all of the people,” in reference to a disease with a global scale and threat.
Pandemic entered usage in the 17th century, likely piggybacking off of the adoption of epidemic into the lexicon.
The suffix “-ic”, by the way, just makes something an adjective or noun. It comes from French -ique, Latin -icus, and Greek ikos. You’re welcome for that useless information.
In our modern English, a vaccine is a “substance used to stimulate the production of antibodies.” That basically means it’s used to give us immunity or increased defences against viral pathogens, such as smallpox and polio (and now COVID-19).
The word vaccine first pops up in the 18th century and is another word we can thank smallpox for. The word is actually derivative of cowpox. Here’s why:
Vaccine would roughly mean “fluid from cowpox pustules used in inoculation.” Essentially, this was because the cowpox virus was used to help eradicate smallpox. But it’s not called a cowcine, so why vaccine?
Vaccine gets its root from the Latin word for cow, vacca and further vaccinus. This is because exposure to cowpox grants immunity to smallpox. Edward Jenner coined the term after he discovered that dairy farmers had some immunity to smallpox.
And if you wonder why we have vaccines for some viruses and not for others, it’s because in the case of something like coronavirus, we’re vaccinating against one general strain. There are 160 rhinoviruses, each with different profiles to vaccinate against. There are simply too many of some viruses to vaccinate against. We would need hundreds of vaccines for flus (which is why you get a flu shot every year) and common colds. Just wanted to add this in. Thanks.
Thanks for Reading
I will be doing a part two with sexually transmitted diseases (HIV, herpes, etc.) as well as another part for bacteria that causes illnesses (the black plague, tuberculosis, etc.) and a further entry for parasites. See you next time. Stay healthy, please and thanks.
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Have a good wander, friend.