Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

In Search of "Swine Flu"

"Swine flu is the new Susan Boyle of search terms," announces a headline in Australia's The Age. The Scottish singing sensation was last week's news: people are no longer busy conducting online searches for Ms. Boyle (or for her favored expression, gobsmacked). Instead, they're trying to discover anything they can about swine flu, now that health authorities are warning of a possible pandemic. Let's take a look at how the disease got its name.

Flu is, of course, short for influenza. If that reminds you of influence and also of Italian-style words like cadenza and credenza, then you're on the right track. Influenza originated as the Italian version of influence, and the two words share the Latin root influentia ("influx") from a verb meaning "to flow in." Both English influence and Italian influenza started off as occult terms to describe the effects of heavenly bodies on human bodies. In the medieval imagination, this "influence" took the form of an ethereal substance emanating from the stars and "flowing" into humans. In English, the astrological meaning of influence got toned down into a more worldly "power to affect persons or events."

In Italian, meanwhile, astral influence or influenza was seen as responsible for outbreaks of various contagions. Eventually influenza came to be used for the outbreaks themselves: influenza di febbre scarlattina, for instance, referred to outbreaks of scarlet fever in the early sixteenth century. Then there was influenza di catarro to refer to epidemics of what was known as catarrh (inflammation of mucous membranes in the nose and throat) in the mid-eighteenth century. The first word in the Italian compound got imported into English as the name for the disease, shortened even further to the single syllable flu (or flue).

The shorthand flu is the result of "clipping" at both ends of the longer word. Typically English words get clipped at the beginning (e.g., [tele]phone, [air/aero]plane, [auto]bus, [motor]car), or at the end (e.g., deli[catessen], rehab[ilitation], condo[minium]). Some words can get clipped at the beginning or the end, like taxicab becoming either taxi or cab. But every now and then a word like influenza can get clipped at the beginning and the end: we also have refrigerator becoming fridge, head-shrinker becoming shrink, and Elizabeth becoming Liz.

Both influenza and flu became all-too-common terms with the worldwide outbreak in 1918 that killed tens of millions. Another name for this epidemic was the Spanish flu. Spain got the blame, even though it turned out that American GIs brought the strain with them to Europe during World War I. When Asian flu broke out in 1956, the origins were clearer, since it started out in China's Guizhou province and spread from there. The geographical blame game continues to the present day, with some scientists suggesting that the current viral strain be called Mexican flu rather than swine flu.

Interestingly, when swine flu was first recorded as a human affliction in the early 1920s, scientists were already complaining about the term's inaccuracy. The Oxford English Dictionary cites this quotation from 1921: "So-called 'swine flu,' a name which, while it became quite popular thru its association with the human disease, is nevertheless a misnomer, is primarily a bronchitis." Strains of human influenza identified as swine flu may actually differ substantially from the virus that affects pigs. The flu that has been spreading from Mexico is in fact a conglomeration of several strains of the H1N1 influenza virus that are found independently in humans, birds, and swine.

The mixed nature of the virus behind the current outbreak has led some to suggest yet another term: not swine flu or Mexican flu but hybrid flu. Whether hybrid flu gets more widely recognized as the name for the disease remains to be seen. On the American Dialect Society mailing list, linguist Larry Horn mused, "Presumably, Toyota will not be pleased." Is hybrid too closely associated with hybrid cars like the Prius for it to have staying power as a name for the new flu? Regardless of the answer, we will surely all continue to wrestle with the terminology of epidemiology in the fateful weeks to come.

Update, May 1: You can hear lexicographer Grant Barrett talk about swine flu and other suggested names (including the officially preferred version H1N1 flu) on WNYC's "The Takeaway" here. And here's Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" riffing on the same topic:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Snoutbreak '09 - What to Call Swine Flu
Daily Show
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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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