Viral Words

By Richard Lederer

As the coronavirus wraps its tentacles around our planet and the number of infections and deaths burgeons, you might be wondering why the respiratory pathogen is now 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 or a solar corona.

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 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.

Dr. Richard Lederer is the author of more than 50 books about language, history and humor, including his newest book, “The Joy of Names.” To order signed copies, explore his website, or write him at