Lost without words

Apart from wreaking havoc across the globe, the COVID-19 crisis has spawned a host of new jargon, from expressions such as ‘social distancing’, ‘herd immunity’ and ‘flattening the curve’ to ‘PPE’ (Personal Protective Equipment), and ‘The Great Lockdown’. At the same time, a lot of the vocabulary that we have been using to describe our current situation has much older roots, in ancient Greek and Latin. A closer look reveals that we would be lost for words without these two ancient, yet remarkably enduring, languages.

Let’s start with the most obvious term. Long before the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled this virus COVID-19, we knew it simply as ‘coronavirus’. Corona is Latin for a ‘wreath’ or ‘crown’ while virus means ‘poison’ or ‘venom’. When viewed under a microscope, this virus appears to have a corona, like the glowing, gaseous corona that surrounds the sun, hence ‘coronavirus’.

On 11 March the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a ‘pandemic’. This word comes from the Greek pan– meaning ‘all’ and demos meaning ‘people’. The word pandemic denotes a disease that is prevalent worldwide, whereas an epidemic, from the Greek epi– meaning ‘upon’ and demos meaning ‘people’, denotes a disease that affects mainly one community.

In response to the pandemic, we have witnessed ‘chaos’ and ‘panic’ buying. ‘Chaos’ is a peculiarly appropriate term for the scenes that took place in supermarkets worldwide with frantic shoppers, empty shelves and desperation to provide for one’s most basic needs. The term comes from the Greek khaos meaning a ‘vast empty chasm’ or ‘void’. It also refers to the primordial state of the universe. ‘Panic’ comes from the Greek panikos meaning ‘of or belonging to Pan’. Pan was the Greek god of shepherds, hunters and wild places. With the torso of a man, and the horns, legs and tail of a goat, Pan inspires terror and panic in those who encounter him. I am pretty certain that I saw Pan standing in the toilet paper aisle of my local supermarket a few weeks ago.

As rates of ‘transmission’ have increased, we have been warned to ‘isolate’ and to socially ‘distance’ ourselves from others. ‘Transmission’ comes from the Latin trans- meaning ‘across’ and mittere meaning ‘send’, so it is no wonder that we are being careful about what we send (and receive). ‘Isolated’ comes from the Italian isolato, which comes from Late Latin insulatus meaning ‘made into an island’, which comes from the Latin insula meaning ‘island’. ‘Distant’ comes from the Latin dis– meaning ‘apart’ and stare is to ‘stand’. To stand apart and create an island around oneself is a pretty neat summary of the Australian Government’s advised response to COVID-19.

As we now know, COVID-19 can cause ‘pneumonia’, a type of lung inflammation, so named from the Greek pneumon meaning ‘lung’. For some, this condition is ‘fatal’, from the Latin fatum, meaning ‘that which has been spoken, declared, predicted’. Others seem relatively ‘immune’ to the full implications of COVID-19. Paradoxically, the word ‘immune’ comes from the Latin in- meaning ‘not’ and munis ‘ready for service’.

Meanwhile, the desperate search for a ‘vaccine’ continues. If you tried to explain this to a citizen of ancient Rome, he would be a bit perplexed because vacca is the Latin word for ‘cow’ and vaccinus means ‘of or from cows’. He might scratch his head and hand you a cup of milk or a nice piece of farm cheese. It turns out that scientists in the late 18th century used the cowpox virus to treat smallpox, hence the term ‘vaccine’ from the Latin vaccinus.

As The Great Lockdown came into effect and national economies slow, it is hard not to view the situation as a ‘catastrophe’, from the Greek kata– meaning ‘down’ and strophe meaning ‘turning’. This year is being labelled a ‘disaster’, meaning (literally) a year ‘without a star to guide us’ from the Latin dis-, a prefix that expresses negation, and astrum meaning ‘star’.

Even in these unprecedented and difficult times, there is hope. Unexpectedly, this is reflected in the very terminology being used to describe it. The word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek krisis meaning ‘decision’. This period is not only a turning point in history – it is also a time to make (good) decisions. Similarly, the word ‘cataclysm’ comes from the Greek kata- ‘down’ and kluzein ‘to wash’, hence kataklusmos ‘deluge or flood’. Floodwaters recede, deluges pass and the sun will reappear. We are going to get through this. Even the term ‘apocalypse’ isn’t quite as bad as it seems because it comes from the Greek apo– meaning ‘un’ and kaluptein meaning ‘cover’, so apokaluptein is ‘to uncover, reveal’. It remains to be seen what this situation will reveal about humanity: perhaps new and stronger bonds between individuals, communities and nations, perhaps a new commitment to the planet we live on, perhaps some revision of our values and priorities. For every act of selfishness we have seen or heard about, there have also been acts of kindness: a testament to the good in humanity.

Times like these prompt us to ask ‘what does it all mean?’ I may not have the answer to that question, but I am pretty certain that it all means something in Latin or Greek.


Header image: The Hippocratic Oath in Greek and Latin published in Apud Andreae Wecheli heredes (Frankfurt, 1595) (Source: Wikimedia Commons).



2 thoughts on “Lost without words

  1. I do feel lost for words in your presence, but want to express how full of wonder and delight I feel after reading this. You are “a guiding star” illuminating language. Thank you. I look forward to reading your words.


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