As well as threatening our lives, coronavirus is giving us some strange new hobbies. Without the commute to work, dinners with friends and trips away, many of us are finding ourselves with more time on our hands than ever before. And at Editor Group, we’ve fallen down some interesting rabbit holes. One of these is etymology.

Etymology is the study of word origins – how certain terms were invented and how they’ve changed over time. Did you know that coronavirus gets its name because the membranes around the virus particles resemble the spikes on a crown – or corona, in Latin?

We decided to investigate the history of some other words we’ve been seeing a lot of lately.

Illness

Back in the 1200s, ill had a very different meaning. To be ill was to be malevolent, offensive or objectionable. The word came to English from the Old Norse illr, meaning evil, bad or – interestingly – stingy. When they were sick, Norse speakers described their complaint by saying, ‘it is ill to me’, meaning ‘it is evil to me’ – but it wasn’t until the 15th century that the English picked up on this meaning.

The English came to contrast ill with well, hence the now defunct illcome for welcome, illfare for welfare and illth for wealth.

These strange-sounding words have mostly faded away, although we do still contrast illness with wellness. Today, ill mainly refers to our physical health or lack thereof. But the old meaning still lingers in phrases like ‘an ill wind’ or ‘an ill-intentioned man’.

Influenza, or the flu

This one isn’t strictly coronavirus-related, but the etymology of influenza is so interesting we couldn’t resist. The English borrowed influenza from the Italian during a mid–18th century outbreak of this disease. In their turn, the Italians had pinched the word – which at the time roughly translated into epidemic – from the medieval Latin influentia.

To Latin speakers, influentia meant ‘visitation or influence of the stars’, which is exactly what the Latins, the Italians and later the English thought to be the culprit behind their fevers. The science on that one never quite got settled, though.

Isolation

In Australia’s coronavirus climate, isolation pretty much entails Netflix, the couch and dozens of packets of Twisties. But its original meaning was much more romantic. Isolation comes from the Italian isolato, which itself derives from Latin insulatus – quite literally, to make an island of yourself.

Ostracise

This is an odd one. For reasons unknown to us and quite possibly to them, the citizens of Ancient Greece liked to express themselves through shards of broken pottery. They called these shards ostrakon.

If enough Ancient Greeks decided this-or-that citizen was a bad egg, they would use these shards to vote to banish him or her. Then, if the ostrakon bearing the bad egg’s name were plentiful enough, they would be ostrakizein – or, ostracised.

Pandemic

Why was it such a big deal when, on 11 March, the World Health Organisation pronounced COVID-19 a pandemic? It mattered because the virus was no longer a containable problem, localised to China or Italy. Pandemic, from the Greek pandemos, translates literally as ‘all people’. Yep, no one’s getting out of this thing unscathed.

Panic

Whether you’re videoconferencing from your kitchen table while home-schooling teenagers, worrying about relatives stranded overseas or finding yourself a little, erm, under-resourced in the bathroom, panic is fast becoming a familiar feeling. But did you know that, unlike pantaphobia, which means ‘a fear of absolutely everything’, panic originally referred to the very specific feeling of being utterly terrified by the Greek god Pan?

In the olden days, Pan (pictured), with the head of a man and the hindquarters, legs and horns of a goat, ruled over all living things. As you might imagine, this was a tiring undertaking. Understandably, Pan was a bit precious about his zzzs. Whenever a well-meaning shepherd or hunter accidentally woke him in the field, Pan would unleash a thunderous roar so awe-inspiring that the poor ancient would flee in blind fear, or panikos.

Quack

A couple of weeks ago, New York’s Attorney General ordered radio host and all-round oddball Alex Jones to cease-and-desist from selling fake COVID-19 cures. Jones claimed of the silver toothpaste he was spruiking, “This stuff kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”

This brings us to quacks, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as ‘people who dishonestly pretend to have medical skills or knowledge’.

Quack has nothing to do with ducks, cunning as they are. It actually comes from the Dutch quacksalver, or ‘hawker of salves’. This in turn derives from the Middle Dutch quack – to brag or boast – and salve, a healing ointment that promises salvation. Hopefully it goes without saying that salvation is the last thing you can expect from silver toothpaste or any other harebrained cures.

Quarantine

When the Black Death swept through Europe like a scythe in 1347, killing one-third of the continent’s population, Venice was one of the first cities to succumb. A busy trading port, it was a fertile breeding ground for disease.

After a while, Venetian officials wised up and decided to isolate all ships entering the city’s docks for 40 days, or quaranta giorni. Only after quaranta giorni were crews and their goods allowed ashore into Venice. As the practice became more widespread, so did the term, and it’s from there we get quarantine. Although, given our new 14-day isolation period, we might need to update it to quattordici.

So, there you have it – the ABC of coronavirus!

If you’re looking for a way to stay sane – and stop yourself disappearing down rabbit holes like us – consider our online writing training.

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