Swine flu! News of it pops up everywhere. Why, only last week a friend of ours from Raumati rang to say she would not be coming to Sunday lunch as one in her family was thought to have this flu. We postponed the lunch date; the family member was declared not to have swine flu – and all returned to normal.
Why do we call it swine flu? Let’s go and visit the pigs. Any one of them with swine flu will have fever, coughing and difficulty in breathing. The piglets, the little fellows, are most affected. We trust the farmer to care for his pigs.
Swine flu in humans is caused by the same or a closely related virus, the troubling symptoms being somewhat similar. We were grateful to our friend for having postponed her visit.
Now let’s look at the language: Swine is a good old English word, with similar words in Old Norse, in Old Swedish and German. It’s often used as a term contempt or disgust for a person, or to describe a very unpleasant thing – “this car’s a swine to drive at slow speeds”.
So that settles swine. What about flu? Now there’s a word for you!
Its life began in Italy in 1743. A terrible epidemic had broken out. It was bad, so bad that even to this day a certain message appears in some of our dictionaries under influenza: “…(there is) News from Rome of a contagious Distemper raging there, call’d the Influenza…”. That entry appearing even now gives some idea of the seriousness of the outbreak. Symptoms were fever, weakness, muscular aches, coughing and catarrh. Nobody knew what caused it, but they feared in greatly. There was terror in the region. Someone thought it must be caused by a ‘visitation of the stars’; the influence of the stars. And so arrived the word influenza. The idea caught on and stayed; and though this disease was subsequently shown to be caused by mosquitoes in swampy areas, the word has stuck. Spelt the same way, it appears in French, Spanish, Norwegian and other European languages.
Today we use the abbreviated form ‘flu rather more loosely, to denote any of the various viral infections, especially respiratory ones.no