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Influenza, Measles, and More: The Origins of Disease Names

I got my flu shot this week, and it reminded me of the interesting origin of "influenza" and other disease names I've come across over the years.

By
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read

"Influenza" comes from Latin and the idea that our well-being is influenced by the stars. The Latin word, "influentia" meant "to flow into," and according to World Wide Words, in the astrological sense, "influence" referred to "an ethereal fluid given off by the stars that was supposed to affect humans."

At first, "influenza" referred to any number of diseases. For example, you can find references that call scarlet fever "influenza di febbre scarlattina."

Multiple sources say the word "influenza" came to English directly from Italian after one particularly severe disease outbreak that started in Italy in the early 1740s and spread throughout Europe. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1743 edition of "The London Magazine" and reads "News from Rome of a contagious Distemper raging there, call'd the Influenza." It seems the name spread along with the disease.

The shortened version, "flu" is spelled F-L-U today, but was originally spelled F-L-U-E.

Malaria

Malaria is another disease name borrowed directly from Italian. Today, we know it's caused by protozoans that can infect you when you're bitten by mosquitos, but the name means "bad air" because in the 1700s people just knew that it was a disease that spread in hot, marshy areas with, presumably, bad air. 

And you'll recognize that "mal-" prefix in a lot of words once you think about it, which means things like "bad, wrong, and improper,": People can be maltreated, maladjusted, or malcontent. People can commit malpractice or malfeasance. "Malevolence" means "bad wishing," and if you have a malaise, you are in bad ease. And "malady" comes from parts that roughly mean "a badness that is had or received."

Mumps

Mumps also has an interesting origin.

 

It's caused by a paramyxovirus and makes your salivary glands swell, which makes your face and neck look puffy and can make it painful to chew or swallow. The name seems to come from the way people look when they are infected because before mumps was the name of a disease, it was a verb that meant to grimace or mumble, and in Scottish English it can mean to grumble or complain. The OED says it now often appears in the phrase "to mump and moan" as in "You aren't going to mump and moan about the high price of cheese, are you?"

It also meant to have "a fit of melancholy or ill humor," and the OED suggests comparing it to this other delightful old phrase: "mubble fubbles," which was a 16th century term for being depressed or in low spirits (as in "She's in her mubble fubbles").

Rubella

The story of rubella's name is simple, but interesting. The viral infection is also called the German measles, but the name "rubella" comes from the Latin word for "reddish" because people who are infected often get a bad red rash. 

"Rubellus" is the same root that gives us the words "rubric" and "rust."

Measles

And finally, believe it or not, the name "measles" can be traced back to the same Latin root that gave us "commiserate," which I talked about in the first part of this week's Grammar Girl podcast. It comes from the root that meant "unhappy, wretched, or in distress" and also gave us the words "misery" and "miser."

It's not the origin—the actual origin for the name "measles" comes from similar words that meant "blood blister" or "red spot" in a lot of old Germanic languages, like the middle Dutch word "masel"— but both the Oxford English Dictionary and Etymonline say the pronunciation and spelling of "measles" were heavily influenced by the word that meant "misery."

And you may not have made the connection—I never did—but "measly" meaning small, as in "I can't believe I delivered pizza in the snow for those measly tips," is the very same word as "measly" meaning infected with measles. It just took on an additional, colloquial use to also describe things that are insultingly small.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.