Lost without words

Sculpture of Asclepius and Hygeia, image cropped. Image: Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia
Wednesday 29 April 2020

By Dr Sonia Pertsinidis

Apart from wreaking havoc across the globe, the COVID-19 crisis has spawned a host of new jargon, from ‘social distancing’, ‘herd immunity’ and ‘flattening the curve’ to ‘PPE’ (Personal Protective Equipment), and ‘The Great Lockdown’. But, a lot of the vocabulary that we have been using to describe our current situation has much older roots, in ancient Greek and Latin. In fact, we would be lost for words when it came to understanding this pandemic without these two ancient, yet remarkably enduring, languages. 

Long before the World Health Organization (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 have taken 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 in those who encounter him. I am pretty certain that I saw Pan standing in the toilet paper aisle of my local supermarket.

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, 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 continues, and national economies grind to a halt, it is hard not to view the current 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 will 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. 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.

Dr Sonia Pertsinidis is a Lecturer and Convenor of Ancient Greek, at the Centre for Classical Studies in the Australian National University’s College of Arts and Social Sciences.

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Updated:  29 April 2020/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications