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Old Words for a New World

Michele Wood

April 17, 2020

“All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”

-Ernest Hemingway

There is no shortage of content these days. News stories in print, video, tweets and memes flood every possible media platform. Most contain thousands of words, and many, in these days of nearly singular focus, contain the same words over and over. It got me wondering — what do these words really mean? When I looked into it, what I found was a fascinating connection to the past and an oddly comforting assurance that what we are living through, though new to most of us (shout out to the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic survivors out there), was in fact, not new at all.

I’ve pulled etymology for the most common words we are using in regards to the Covid-19 pandemic from the website www.etymonline.com. I recommend checking it out if you also find this stuff interesting and are anxious for a break from the death count headlines.

The first word I looked at was one most of us are practicing right now:

quarantine (n.)

1660s, "period a ship suspected of carrying disease is kept in isolation," from Italian quaranta giorni, literally "space of forty days," from quaranta "forty," from Latin quadraginta"forty," So called from the Venetian policy (first enforced in 1377) of keeping ships from plague-stricken countries waiting off its port for 40 days to assure that no latent cases were aboard. The extended sense of "any period of forced isolation" is from 1670s.

Earlier in English the word meant "period of 40 days in which a widow has the right to remain in her dead husband's house" (1520s), and, as quarentyne (15c.), "desert in which Christ fasted for 40 days."

I had never seen the “40” root in that word before. Of course, the ancient use of the number forty likely did not mean exactly one more than 39, but instead was a term of indeterminate sum meant to convey “a really long time” or “a lot of something.” Those of us who have been obeying the “stay at home” order for a time nearing 40 days can certainly relate.

The next word seemed an obvious follow-through:

virus (n.)

late 14c., "poisonous substance," from Latin virus "poison, sap of plants, slimy liquid, a potent juice," from Proto-Italic *weis-o-(s-) "poison," The meaning "agent that causes infectious disease" is recorded by 1728 (in reference to venereal disease); the modern scientific use dates to the 1880s. The computer sense is from 1972.

One fascinating thing I learned was that we had a scientific concept of a virus 60 years before we were able to see one. A virus is too small to see through a regular microscope, so scientists knew they existed but were unable to lay “eyes” on one until the invention of the electron microscope in 1931.

One of the menacing things about viruses (and there are many) is that one of the only effective tools to protect against them are vaccines. This etymology may be familiar to many, but bears a reminder of how creative innovation can lead to blockbuster results.

vaccination (n.)

1800, used by British physician Edward Jenner (1749-1823) for the technique he publicized of preventing smallpox by injecting people with the similar but much milder cowpox virus (variolae vaccinae), from vaccine (adj.) "pertaining to cows, from cows" (1798), from Latin vaccinus "from cows," from vacca "cow." A mild case of cowpox rendered one immune thereafter to smallpox. "The use of the term for diseases other than smallpox is due to Pasteur."

Of course, the word “pandemic” is being more widely used right now given the scale of the outbreak. The prefix “pan” means “all” so a pandemic is simply an epidemic affecting “all.” The interesting thing about the root “epidemic” is that it first appears as an adjective in English, not a noun. See below.

epidemic (adj.)

1600, "common to or affecting a whole people," originally and usually, though not etymologically, in reference to diseases, from Medieval Latin epidemia, from Greek epidemia"a stay in a place; prevalence of an epidemic disease" (especially the plague), from epi"among, upon" (see epi-) + dēmos "people, district.”

The next word is tricky. I don’t think I’m alone in relating the word “hygiene” to uncomfortable health class discussions in grade school or unmentionable aisles in the supermarket (if you’re female). But if you look at the etymology of the word, it’s really quite lovely.

hygiene (n.)

1670s, from French hygiène, ultimately from Greek hygieine techne "the healthful art," from hygies "healthy, sound, hearty," literally "living well" (personified as the goddess Hygieia), The Greek adjective was used by Aristotle as a noun meaning "health." The difficult spelling in English is a relic of the struggle to render the Greek vowels into French.

All those admonitions to “wash your hands” and “practice good hand hygiene” are actually encouragements to keep the virus out and “live well.”

Living well. For many right now this concept likely feels like an impossible wish. Individuals, families, institutions and businesses are having to make gut-wrenching decisions. Fear and pain are more widespread than the virus. Sometimes the well being of “the economy” is pitted against the fight against the virus in the media and in government offices. Leadership in all organizations is being tested. But what exactly do we mean when we use the word “economy?”

economy (n.)

1530s, "household management," from Latin oeconomia, from Greek oikonomia "household management, thrift," from oikonomos "manager, steward," from oikos "house, abode, dwelling"  Meaning "frugality, judicious use of resources" is from 1660s. The sense of "wealth and resources of a country" (short for political economy) is from 1650s.

As we are all part of “the economy” I find this word origin to bring me a sense of community and shared purpose in the fight against the virus. Many of us are practicing forms of frugality as business slows or halts, and uncertainty is the dominant psychological state. And we are seeing countless examples of “judicious use of resources” everywhere we look, as people and groups collaborate to get help where it is needed. It will take some time to get our “household” back under management, but this is an endeavor humans have been at for centuries.

Which brings us to one of the sweeter words of the day: recover. In daily or weekly tallies, this is the word I look for and find most respite in.

recover (v.)

c. 1300, "to regain consciousness," from Anglo-French rekeverer (13c.), Old French recovrer "come back, return; regain health; procure, get again" (11c.), Meaning "to regain health or strength" is from early 14c.; sense of "to get (anything) back" is first attested mid-14c. Related: Recoveredrecovering.

I love the first phrase: “to regain consciousness.” This is a surreal time to live through—days blend into one another, the sense of dread piped in through news channels and on phone screens feels oddly disconnected from the blossoming, calm physical scene just outside most windows. I think for many of us this does feel like an altered state of consciousness. Recovery doesn’t necessarily mean returning back to sameness, but there will be a coming back.

Which brings me to the last word I looked up today:

immune (adj.)

mid-15c., "free, exempt" (from taxes, tithes, sin, etc.), from Latin immunis "exempt from public service, untaxed; unburdened, not tributary," literally ""not paying a share," from assimilated form of in- "not, opposite of" (see in- (1)) + munis "performing services" (compare municipal), Specific modern medical sense of "exempt (from a disease)," typically because of inoculation, is from 1881, a back-formation from immunityImmune system attested by 1917.

This was jarring to see. Did immune really mean “not paying a share?” The horrible, incredible thing about a pandemic is that it literally (to different degrees of course) affects all (pan) the people (demos). As we search for a cure, a therapy, a vaccine, a way out, we speak about acquiring immunity. But let us not mean it in the original sense where we shirk public service, where we seek to be unburdened and avoid “paying a share.” That’s likely not an option anyway.

I tell my kids often that it’s not one’s words that matter as much as one’s actions. But of course, words often turn into actions, for better or for worse. This is a time of careful words and careful actions.

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

-Buddha