by Richard Lederer
On February 11, 2020, in Geneva, the head of the World Health Organization unveiled the name of a new disease: COVID-19. A little more than a month later, COVID-19 landed in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the fastest journey from conception to formal recognition in the company’s nearly 200-year history.
The word COVID-19 is what linguists call a clipped compound. Each component of the word is shortened and strung together, as in Amoco (“American Oil Company”), AMVETS (“American Veterans”), and Nabisco (“National Biscuit Company”). In COVID-19, 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 spikes 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 sense of sickness is not recorded until the very late fourteenth 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 forty 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 forty days in which a ship suspected of harboring disease had to remain in isolation. The arbitrary number was based on the notion that after forty 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 forty 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, panorama, and panacea. Following the analogy of pantheon, the poet John Milton welded together pan, “all,” and demon, “devil,” to forge pandemonium, which literally means “a place of all demons.” Because Satan and his company were noisy and mischief-making, the meaning of pandemonium has broadened to mean “uproar or tumult.”
The pandemic has generated a growing lexicon of new words and compounds, including social distancing (I contend that physical distancing is a more accurate description), covidiot, “a person who behaves recklessly during the pandemic, ” and zoom bombing, “an intrusion into a video conference.”
Dr. Richard Lederer is the author of more than 50 books about language, history and humor, including his newest books, “A Treasury of Halloween Humor” and “A Treasury of Christmas Humor.” To order signed copies, explore his website, verbivore.com or write him Richard Lederer at firstname.lastname@example.org.