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Cover Story



Word anatomy

Etymology of medical terms

Written by Cynthia J. Johnson, PhD

Out of the slime


People create the vocabulary they need. Languages spoken in cold climates contain more terms for describing snow than languages spoken in hot climates. But some words are nearly universal. Virus, the Latin for slimy liquid, slime, poison (especially of snakes), venom, or any harsh taste or smell is related to words in sister languages throughout Europe and Southern Asia, from Old Irish to Sanskrit. It is also related to another Latin word, viscum, meaning a sticky substance, birdlime. Virus may have come into the English language as early as the late 1300s and most likely no later than the end of the 15th century. Speakers of that era used it to indicate a venomous substance, typically snake venom. It was not used in its modern sense, agent that causes infectious disease, until 1728. The adjective viral did not appear until more than two centuries later, in 1948.

Why do we call it the flu?


Only a few people still call it influenza, an Italian word that means influence, but that’s where we get the name for these viral infections. Originally, the influence in question was the stars, which ancient Romans thought were responsible for epidemics. Later, Italians created a different reference for the word, saying it alluded to the influence of the cold that was to blame for the sickness. The term was adopted into the English language in 1743, the year of an outbreak in Italy. The shortened form flu has been in use since 1839. Describing a symptom of the illness rather than its origin, the French call the flu la grippe, meaning a seizing. According to one source, this is supposedly because of the constriction of the throat experienced by those who suffer from the illness.

As science grows, so does scientific vocabulary


Epidemiology, the study of the incidence, distribution and control of disease in a population, contains three Greek words:

All three elements are found in a host of other English words, medical and otherwise, from epidermis to philology and democracy or demographics. But we did not inherit epidemiology from the ancient Greeks. Relatively young, it arrived in English indirectly. Before there was epidemiology, there were epidemics. Hippocrates used endemic to describe diseases found among populations in some places but not in others and epidemic to describe diseases that are seen at some times but not others. The Greek term epidemia was used in Europe from the Middle Ages on to describe the outbreaks of disease that decimated populations and altered the course of history. By the 19th century, scientists were at last making headway in combating epidemic diseases and the field was established. The first use of épidémiologie in French occurred in 1855. Its first use in English was recorded in 1873. The 19th century was an era of tremendous growth in the field of linguistics as well. The two disciplines met in Noah Webster, who compiled the first American dictionary and studied the relationships between epidemics and environmental factors.

Cynthia J. Johnson

Cynthia J. Johnson, Ph.D., is communications manager/Office of Advancement. Cynthia has nearly 30 years of experience in communications management; is the author of numerous reports, proposals, and policy papers; and has taught in France and in the U.S. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Ball State University, a master's degree from the University of Kentucky, and a Ph.D. from Rice University.