By Sally Asante
I recently contacted Richard Lederer, linguist, grammarian, author of more than 50 books, and humorist extraordinaire, and told him that my friends at Lakeside were a bit down in the dumps these days. Asked if he could offer any uplifting words, he promptly sent me the following essay. Enjoy.
On February 11, 2020, in Geneva, the head of the World Health Organization unveiled the name of a new disease: COVID-19. A little more than a month later, COVID-19 landed in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the fastest journey from conception to formal recognition in the company’s nearly 200-year history.
The word COVID-19 is what linguists call a clipped compound. Each component of the word is shortened and strung together, as in Amoco (“American Oil Company”), AMVETS (“American Veterans”), and Nabisco (“National Biscuit Company”). In COVID-19, CO is a clipping of corona, VI of virus, and D of disease. The 19 identifies the year the outbreak began.
Corona derives from a Greek-through-Latin word for garland, wreath, or crown. The name refers to the characteristic appearance, under an electron microscope, of virions, the infective form of the virus. These virions exhibit a fringe of large, bulbous surface spikes that create an image resembling a crown, as in coronation.
Virus began life as a Latin word with the same spelling that meant “poison,” specifically the venom from a snake or spider. Virus also signified “filthy, slimy,” referring to the foul, filthy, and slimy places that caused people to become sick from contact with contaminated water and refuse.
Disease descends from Latin through Old French and originally meant “without ease.” The sense of sickness is not recorded until the very late 14th century.
Another word we’re seeing and hearing a lot these days is quarantine. The first meaning of quarantine, from the Italian quarantina, was a period of forty days during which a widow had the right to continue living in her deceased husband’s house that was to be seized for debt.
Soon the word took on a related meaning—the forty days in which a ship suspected of harboring disease had to remain in isolation. The arbitrary number was based on the notion that after forty days, the disease on board would either have run its course and ended any chance of contagion or would have burst forth its ghastly fury. Finally, quarantine broadened to signify any period of sequestering, and the reference to forty has vanished.
Then there’s the word vaccinate. For centuries, smallpox was a scourge of humanity, scarring and killing millions. Edward Jenner, a British doctor, noticed that milkmaids did not generally get smallpox and theorized that the pus in the blisters that these women developed from cowpox protected them from the more virulent smallpox. In 1796, Jenner found that inoculating people with a serum containing the lymph gland fluid of cows infected with cowpox virus prevented the similar smallpox. That’s why vaccine, vaccination, and vaccinate contain the Latin name for “cow,” vacca.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. The word epidemic originated with the Greek epidemia, constructed from epi, “among,” and demos, “people,” as in democracy. The pan in pandemic means “all,” as in Pan American, panorama, and panacea. Following the analogy of pantheon, the poet John Milton welded together pan, “all,” and demon, “devil,” to forge pandemonium, which literally means “a place of all demons.” Because Satan and his company were noisy and mischief-making, the meaning of pandemonium has broadened to mean “uproar or tumult.”
The pandemic has generated a growing lexicon of new words and compounds, including social distancing (I contend that physical distancing is a more accurate description), covidiot, “a person who behaves recklessly during the pandemic,” and zoom bombing, “an intrusion into a video conference.”
Following those viral facts, I’ll close with a pundemic of viral humor. I’m hoping that, for you, they’re inside jokes:
I’ll tell you some COVID-19 jokes, but you won’t get them for two weeks.
Twenty years ago, Steve Jobs was alive, Johnny Cash was alive, and Bob Hope was alive. Now we have no jobs, no cash, and no hope. Please don’t let Meat Loaf, Kevin Bacon, and Jon Hamm die.
Recently, John Travolta was hospitalized for suspected COVID-19. But doctors found that it was just a Saturday Night Fever, so he’s Staying Alive.
A famous film director is making a documentary about the stay-at-home lockdown in New Jersey. His name is Trenton Quarantino.
Our cleaning lady texted us that she is now working from home. She promised to send us instructions about what to do.
Flash! Israel has developed a vaccine for the coronavirus. The antibody converts the virus to Judaism and then bar mitzvahs it. After the bar mitzvah, the virus never comes back.
Quarantine has turned us into dogs. We roam the house all day looking for food. We want to run out of the house whenever the door opens. We are told “no” if we get too close to strangers. And we get really excited about car rides.
World Health Organization has determined that dogs cannot contract Covid-19. Dogs previously being held in quarantine will be released. To be clear, WHO let the dogs out.
Prediction: There will be a minor baby boom in nine months. Then, in 2033, we shall witness the rise of the quaranteens. Their most popular first names will be Charmin and Scott.
Snow White is down to six dwarfs. Sneezy is now in quarantine.
These days, every day is Ground Hog Day.
These days, the trash goes out more than I do.
Is it too early to put up the Christmas tree? I have run out of things to do.
The spread of COVID-19 depends on two factors: (1) How dense the population is. (2) How dense the population is.
The Spanish king has been quarantined primarily on his private jet. So the rein in Spain stays mainly in his plane.
What does the 19 stand for in COVID-19? The number of pounds you’ll put on during your sheltering in place.
(Reprinted with permission.)