Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things coronavirus lately for obvious reasons. It’s been just over six weeks now since California locked down, which has been an absolutely surreal experience. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.


Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.


Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.


This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.


Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.


In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Of wigs and words

I ran across a very useful and interesting phrase in Spanish today — interesting because there are actually various versions of it. It is: “ni calvo ni con dos pelucas,” which literally means “either bald or with two wigs,” although I’ve seen it with varying numbers of wigs, at least up to seven. (Another fun fact: Unlike English cats, which have nine lives, Spanish cats only have seven.)

But the meaning of the phrase is simply that neither extreme — having too little or having too much — is good, and you should aim for the middle. And now that you know the word for wig, peluca, you might be able to recognize another word you may see on businesses: peluquería, which is derived from it; the c to q change is very common in Spanish. And no, this word does not mean wig-maker. It means hairdresser or barber shop.

The word for bald, calvo, might remind you of another Spanish word you may have seen: calavera, which means skull, or calvario, which refers to Calvary, the Latin word for the hill Jesus was crucified on and which was known as Golgotha, or Gólgota in Spanish, from the Greek word Γολγοθᾶ. This gets really interesting, because that word came from Aramaic, Gûlgaltâ (obviously not in the original characters) and wound up also being translated into Greek as Κρανίου Τόπος.

Now if you transliterate that Greek into the Latin alphabet, it might be more obvious: Kraniou topos. “Cranium” is pretty clear in the first word, and topos means place — hence the word “topography,” or writing about places. All of the words above refer to “Place of the Skull” and, apparently, that hill sort of resembled one.

In case you’re wondering, yep. The name “Calvin” comes from the same roots and originally meant “Little Bald One.” Same goes for the author Italo Calvino, whose name rather unfortunately meant “Little Bald One from Italy.” Ironically, he never really went all that bald. But we can now see that using somewhat negative terms to refer to people losing their hair goes back quite a long time in human history.

Finally, here’s a nice twist on it showing how strong the influence of Latin has been on most Western European Languages. The German word for bald is kahl, and you’ll find similar-sounding words for it in a lot of other European languages. Interestingly, even a language as unrelated as Finnish has “kalju,” which is clearly related. The common thread seems to be the hard “K” and the “L” ending. Play around with that long enough, and “skull” just pours itself right out of the sounds.

This does make me wonder whether George R. R. Martin wasn’t playing around when he named a character Khal Drogo, although khal also means “vinegar,” hence “bitter,” in Arabic, as well as “canal” in Bengali, more on which below. Although it also evokes Genghis Khan, who could certainly be taken as a role model for the character in every way, and which may have been more what Martin was going for.

As for the Drogo surname, on the one hand, it invokes the Latin draco, dragon (and hence Draco Malfoy, whose last name means “bad faith” in French), on the other hand, Drogo is also the word for “expensive” in Polish.

And this is why languages fascinate me, because it’s just so damn fun to look at how they’re connected and how they influence each other, and how long-dead empires and cultures can still have an impact to this day because of the literature and influence they left behind. It’s also interesting to see how similar sounding words have no connections whatsoever. For example, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was named after a city on the Scottish Isle of Mull, which came for the Norse words kald and gart, for “cold garden.” And Kolkata, in India, was either named for the goddess Kali or for its original location on a canal, or khal. Although they both sound like it, neither one has anything to do with Calvary. Or, for that matter, the cavalry, but let’s not horse around with that one right now.

And that’s enough PUNishment for the moment.