For decades, the word “pandemic” occupied a little-visited suburb of the English language. Obscure researchers, doctors with a death wish, and doomsday theorists scribbled about it in journals bought by few and read by even fewer. Then, in a matter of weeks this year, “pandemic” made its way to the smartest and costliest digs in town. So far in 2020, the term has been included in every other news report, bandied about in op-eds in all sorts of publications, punned about on social media, and tossed around like a football by ten-year-olds.

In 2020, “pandemic” went, well, viral

First recorded in the 1660s, the word comes from the Latin pandemus”, which in turn comes from the Greek “pandemos”: “pan” meaning “all, every, whole”, and “demos” meaning “the people”, specifically, the people of ancient Greek states. The connection of “demos” to “democracy” is not difficult to decipher.

As for “epidemic” – the Greek word “epi” means “on” – it may have first been used by Homer. Hippocrates adopted it later as the title of one of his famous treatises. At that time, epidemic was the name given to a collection of clinical syndromes, such as coughs or diarrhoeas, spreading over a given period at one location. Over the centuries, the meaning of the term changed. After the repeated outbreaks of plague in the Middle Ages, “epidemic” came to be understood as the propagation of a single, well-defined disease.

Based on available evidence, it can be concluded that “pandemic” entered the English language later than “epidemic”. Thomas Lodge’s A Treatise of the Plague, published in 1603, talks of the “Epidemick plague” as a “common and popular sicknesse, hapning in some region, or countrey, at a certaine time”.

The word “pandemic”, essentially an epidemic spread over a wider geographical area, appears to have been modelled after “epidemic”. Both seem to come from the same etymological roots.

The bovine connection

The word “vaccine” and “vaccination come from the name for a pox virus – the cowpox virus orvaccinia. An apocryphal story holds that in the late 1770s, Edward Jenner, the physician who developed the small pox vaccine, heard a Bristol milkmaid boast, “I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.”

Intrigued, Jenner investigated further and came to the conclusion that the milkmaid was right. Milkmaids infected with cowpox, which appeared as a series of pustules on the hands and forearms, were immune to smallpox epidemics that regularly attacked others. In 1796, Jenner gave a patient what came to be known as the first “vaccinia vaccine” – that is, a vaccine made from the cowpox virus. Jenner’s vaccination soon became the major means of preventing smallpox around the world.

From the manger has also emerged another oft-heard word in these days: “herd”, used in the context of immunity. “Herd” comes from the Old English “heord” meaning a “flock, company of domestic animals”. Interestingly, “herd” is connected to the Sanskrit “śárdhah”, which also means ‘flock’.

This connection is a pointer to the common roots of Sanskrit and English, both of which belong to the Indo-European language family – and whose ancestor, what linguists call “Proto Indo-European” (PIE), is a language from the distant past. The original PIE word, some linguists suggest, is likely to have been “kerdh”, from which flowed the Sanskrit and English words.

“Immunity”, though, is not of animal stock. It appears to descend from the Old French “immunité”, meaning “exemption from service or obligation”, which itself comes from the Latin “immunitatem”, meaning “exemption from performing public service or charge, privilege”.

The medical sense of immunity as “protection from disease” has been dated back to 1879, when Louis Pasteur developed the science of immunisation in the process of studying a disease that affected chickens (known as “chicken cholera”) and accidentally “immunized” some chickens to the disease. He went on to develop vaccines for anthrax and rabies, and is regarded as the father of immunology.

30? No, 40!

The current pandemic, of course, harks back to the devastating outbreak of plague in the middle ages. Around 1350, officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) passed a law establishing what they termed trentino”, derived from the Italian trenta” meaning “thirty” – a 30-day period of isolation for ships that had arrived from plague-affected areas.

No one was allowed to visit the ships under “trentino”. Offenders were punished by also being isolated for the mandatory 30 days. This practice of isolation soon became commonplace, with Marseilles, Pisa, and various other cities also adopting the practice.

Within a century, cities had extended the isolation period from 30 to 40 days, and the term changed from “trentino” toquarantine”, derived from the Italian “quaranta” meaning “forty”. This is the root of the word “quarantine” that rolls off our tongue today.

A spinoff of “quarantine” that has gained currency since April 2020 is Quentin Quarantino”. The Urban Dictionary defines it thus: “When you are advised to quarantine due to a world-wide crisis, are extremely bored, stuck indoors and your social media movie making skills are in full effect.”

“Isolation” in a “cabin”

Given the prolonged nature of the pandemic, “cabin fever” might well become an accepted malady of sorts – acceptable enough as a reason to shirk that irksome Zoom call. This word appears to have originated in the US, perhaps in the late 19th or early 20th century. The isolation that those who “went West” towards the Great Plains suffered during the long winter months, with virtually no company at hand, is the likely origin of this term. It probably referred to a type of claustrophobia that the isolation brought on.

Not incidentally, the word “isolation”, too, comes from a medical context closely connected to the plague epidemic. The first permanent hospital for treating plague victims was established in Venice in 1423 on a nearby island called Santa Maria di Nazaret. The patients were in a manner of speaking “islanded” (or in “isolato” in Italian, which comes from “insula”, meaning “island” in Latin), which explains how the term made its way to English.

Crash! Bang!…and a word is born!

Every once in a while, words burst into public consciousness. As linguists will tell you, this is rather unusual. Usually, words flow into languages organically, often from other languages through repeated usage over a long period of time. Sometimes, they are coined by people, introduced and then adopted in a gradual fashion, again over a fairly lengthy period of time. But in some instances, words enter vocabularies with a bang. Quite literally!

Prior to “pandemic”, nothing illustrates this better than the way the word “tsunami” invaded the world’s consciousness on December 26, 2004. Before that day, “tsunami” was a trivia question, recognised by some as the Japanese word for “tidal wave” or “harbour wave”. A few others identified it as the subject of a famous woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, copies of which have long adorned Western homes.

But since the 2004 tsunami, the term has also come to mean a cataclysmic change that significantly alters the nature of reality. The 2008 financial crisis was thus characterized as a “financial tsunami’”. After the worldwide lockdown, the term “digital tsunami’” has also been widely used by business analysts to describe the unavoidable shift to a digital-only work-from-home scenario prompted by the pandemic.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.