The origin of pandemic-related words

I love dictionaries. I have at least a dozen different ones, including several medical dictionaries. I cannot even lift my Random House Dictionary of the English Language, and my Canadian Oxford Dictionary is only a bit lighter. My favorite dictionaries are those that explain the origins of words. These include A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Word Origins and their Romantic Stories, and Playboy’s Book of Forbidden Words (which explains, among other things, where the ubiquitous word that starts with F comes from).

Recently a friend directed me to an article on, focusing on the origins of some of the pandemic terms of the past and the present. I have collected some of these terms, added a few extras from my own sources, and present here my mini etymological word-source dictionary, relevant to our current lives.

alert – from the Italian all’erta!: to the watchtower! be alert! 
bacteria – from the Greek bacterion, meaning staff (or stick). Under early microscopes the germs had the shape of a staff. 
bubonic – from Latin, referring to swelling in the groin
congregation – from the Latin con meaning together and greg meaning a flock or with the herd
cynics – from the Greek cynikos – meaning dog like or having the ways of a growling dog
epidemic – from the Greek epi meaning upon and demos a people
endemic – from the Greek eni meaning belonging and demos to a people
immunity – from the Latin immunis, meaning exempt, originally meant exempt from public service
influenza – from Italian, but originally from Latin: flowing – like catarrh – flowing, like: runny nose
inoculation – from Latin, originally used in horticulture, as insert an eye (oculus) or a bud in a plant for propagation
isolation – from the Italian isolato meaning detached (like an island)
laboratory – from the Latin elaboratus meaning work out
…ology – from Greek, meaning knowledge or science, e.g.: epidemi-ology, techn-ology or psych-ology
pandemic – from the Greek pan meaning all and demos the people
pandemonium – from the Greek all the demons
pestilence – from the Latin unwholesome atmosphere
plague – from the Latin plaga meaning a blow. To early physicians any epidemic was a “blow”
politics – from the Greek politika – meaning affairs of cities
prevelance – from the Latin praevalent meaning having greater power
protocol – from the Greek protokollon: the first page of a manuscript with an index – the outline of rules
quarantine – from Latin: the space of 40 days
surveillance – from the Latin super meaning over and uigil meaning awake
vaccine – from the Latin vaccinus, belonging to cows
virus – from Latin, meaning poisonous substance

And perhaps the most important word in today’s pandemic: recover – probably from the French recouvrer, through the Latin recuperare but originally from Sabine [an ancient Italian tribe] cuprus meaning to make good again!

Let us hope so! (hope from hoop, haab, and hopp from Dutch, Danish and Swedish origins). 
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading
Horobin S. Stay alert, infodemic, Black Death: The fascinating origin of pandemic terms. The Conversation. Accessed 27 May 2020.

Skeat WW. A concise etymological dictionary of the English language. New York: Capricorn Books, 1963.

Funk W. Word origins and their romantic stories. New York: Grosset and Dunlop publishers, 1950.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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