Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. 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

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

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.

Pandemic

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.

Pox

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.

Vaccine

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.

Momentous Monday: Interesting times

There is an alleged Chinese curse that did not come from China at all and which may not have even been meant to be a curse when first mentioned by Joseph Chamberlain. The phrase goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.”

The implication, of course, is that interesting times are dangerous ones.

Right now, in the spring of 2020 C.E., the entire planet is living in interesting times, and I have a feeling that all of human history is going through a process of change that will be marked and noted by historians from here on out.

Congratulations, fellow humans. We are indeed living through a profound moment that will leave a different world behind, and those of us who survive it will be able to tell future generations, “Yeah. I was there. We never saw it coming, but it changed everything.”

At the moment, the day to day changes may seem weird and trivial — or not — but consider this. When was your last normal trip to the grocery store? When was the last time you found everything on your list? Why is there still no goddamn TP?

Or eggs and skim milk — those are the weird shortages, actually, because America just makes so goddamn much of both. Oh, sure, we’re lousy with over-priced “organic” bullshit eggs, as well as 2% and Whole milk, but if you’re into non-fat, you’re out of luck.

And get away from me with recommending any kind of “milk” that didn’t come out of a mammal, because that’s not milk. Coconut, almond, soy, whatever? Yep. Not milk. You’re drinking nut juice.

How does that sound?

Gas prices have dropped but that’s okay, because no one is driving anywhere. Those of us who can work from home are maintaining. Those of us who can’t… well, it’s a whole new world.

Certain people seem to think we can end the American lockdown by Easter, which is April 12. Cooler heads say, “Hell no.” This may go on through May or June, and seeing as how the U.S. suddenly became the most infected country in the world on March 26th, the idea of “It’s all over by Easter” is irresponsible as hell.

And remember that this is a pandemic, as in “It doesn’t just affect your town or county or state or country.” This is worldwide. And, as I mentioned above, this one is going to go into the history books along with some of the greatest hits of Events that Changed Everything.

For example:

476 CE: Fall of the Western Roman Empire. The long-term result of this little collapse was the creation of what would become modern Europe. Freed from the yoke of one oppressive empire, various local tribes — which had been allowed to maintain their culture in exchange for providing fealty, soldiers, and taxes to the mothership in Rome — were suddenly free to discover their own identities.

1206 CE: Genghis Kahn begins his conquest of Asia, and almost takes Europe as well. He wiped entire countries and civilizations off of the map, and changed the course of history in Europe forever.

1492 CE: Columbus is allowed to begin the exploitation of the New World, which will lead to an eventual super power that will basically become the new Roman Empire. In effect, this is the continuation of what the Fall of Rome started in Europe

1776 – 1815 CE: A motherlode, from the American Revolution through the French Revolution and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The monarchical system is basically ripped out of power forever. It starts when those pesky colonists (in the land conquered by the Europeans who existed because Rome fell) rebelled against their mother country and won. France followed by rebelling at home and winning, only to wind up launching the next would-be dictator because they let the “party purity” assholes take control of their revolution. That would-be dictator (Napoleon) was defeated by the British, who had lost the American Revolution. Monarchy in Europe was mostly told to fuck off from this point forward.

1917 – 1918 CE: Double whammy of the Russian Revolution and The Great War. The former would lead to the first successful, long-term revolutionary state (France didn’t make that cut for reasons noted above), while the “Great War” would lead to a sequel, WW II, which would lead to all kinds of things, including the Cold War between the aforementioned Super Power and the USSR

1990 CE: The collapse of the USSR, apparently (but not really) ending the Cold War and pushing the U.S. into the number one spot.

2020 CE – ???: Worldwide pandemic and lack of leadership possibly ends in the collapse of the U.S., leaving China as the world’s last super power; and the independent Republic of California as a major player in the world economy, although we could also see the creation of the country of Pacifica, made up of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Or… we could somehow manage to get our shit together and survive this whole thing, but I’m not crossing my fingers at this point. We still have to figure out how to have a national election through all of this and, no matter what anyone might think, if the election doesn’t happen, the President doesn’t stay in power.

Rather, his time in office expires on January 20, 2021, along with the Vice President, and the Speaker of the House. Rules of secession would turn the presidency over to the President Pro-Tem of the Senate.

If we still have a government by that point, of course. Enjoy your sheltering in place, and I’ll see you on the other side.