John Larrysson's Column: The Pandemic is Latin

Many of the words used to describe our current pandemic are from Latin.  Starting with the English word virus, which is from the Latin word virus meaning poison. The name Coronavirus was chosen because under a microscope the virus looks like a crown. The English word crown comes from the Latin word corona meaning a crown (or laurel wreath) given to army heroes. 

A pandemic is just an epidemic that is worldwide and is from the Late Latin pandemus. The prefix pan- meaning all and every came into English from Latin (although originally from Greek). The word epidemic is from the Medieval Latin epidemia (although originally from the Greek epidemia meaning upon the people). 

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The word quarantine means forty from the Latin quadraginta. This use of forty is from the Bible where forty days or forty years symbolised a long time.* Without enough medical knowledge of disease, Europeans simply reverted to forty days as a reasonable guess for how long someone suspected of carrying disease should be isolated.

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Apparently there are many asymptomatic people who are walking around slowly spreading the virus. The prefix a- is a reduced form of the Latin prefix ab- (from, away, off) added onto the word symptomatic to mean a negative asymptomatic- not showing symptoms. The adjective symptomatic is from the Late Latin symptomaticus, which is from the Medieval Latin sinthoma.  

The best way to avoid catching the coronavirus is to practise social distancing. Practise is from the Medieval Latin practicare, meaning to do. Social is from the Latin socialis, meaning companionship and living with others. And of course distance comes from the Latin distantia, meaning standing apart.

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The whole world is now awaiting a vaccine, and you guessed it. The word vaccine is from the Latin vaccinus, meaning from cows. That seems strange at first. What does a vaccine have to do with cows? The answer comes from the English scientist-doctor Edward Jenner. He discovered that people who caught cowpox, a mild disease of cows, did not catch the related, but deadly, disease smallpox. He used this information to develop the first vaccine. 

In subjects like medicine, science, religion and law one of the first things university students need to do is learn the words people use for their subject. Usually, they are, in fact, learning a little Latin.

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Footnote: In 16th century English law a quarantine was the forty days in which a widow has the right to remain in her dead husband's house before another person has inherited it.

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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