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Pronounced /ˌɪnflʊˈɛnzə/Help with pronunciation

Recent events in Hong Kong have made the whole world jittery. The fear that another global pandemic of influenza might erupt has focused attention on the steps being taken to identify and stop the spread of what the English-speaking world is calling bird flu.

Our formal name for the disease is rather an unEnglish looking formation if you stop to look at it. It’s actually the Italian word for “influence”, which derives from the same medieval Latin word influentia, “to flow into”, as our English equivalent. At first, influence was a term specific to astrology, an ethereal fluid given off by the stars that was supposed to affect humans. It was only in the sixteenth century that the modern meaning, a “power to produce effects”, began to gain the dominance it now possesses. An echo of the astrological sense is the old Cockney and Australian phrase “to put the ’fluence on somebody”, meaning to force a person into compliance by mental powers.

In Italian, influenza took a slightly different course to our influence, coming to refer metaphorically to the outbreak of a disease, thought to caused by the influence of the stars. For example, influenza di febbre scarlattina meant “an outbreak of scarlet fever” and such phrases are known from the early sixteenth century onwards. In 1743 what was called in Italian an influenza di catarro, an “outbreak of the catarrhal fever” became an epidemic which spread across Europe. As is so common with foreign phrases, only the first word was taken to be significant, and the disease immediately came to be known in English as the influenza. From about the beginning of the Victorian period it started to be abbreviated to our modern flu, though often at first spelt flue.

There was a awful outbreak of influenza at the end of the First World War in 1918, which killed at least 20 million people, more than had died in hostilities. This became known as the Spanish flu, because at the time that is where it was believed to have started. But it has since been conclusively proved that it began in the USA (the first recorded case was at Camp Funston, Kansas, on 8 March 1918), was taken to Europe by American servicemen, and mutated there further into an even more virulent strain. Investigations in 1997 of stored tissue samples from an American military hospital at Fort Jackson in South Carolina proved that it had begun as a swine flu. Researchers who reported this finding suggested that the Spanish flu should be renamed the South Carolina flu. The Spanish are hardly likely to object, though the established name will almost certainly prevail.

It has been interesting to see the way the name for the new strain of flu virus has developed. Obviously it could not be called Hong Kong flu, which was the name given to the variety which appeared in 1968. To start with it was referred to in technical or semi-technical contexts as avian influenza because the new variety had jumped the species barrier directly from fowls to humans, something no flu strain had ever been known to do before.

The first instance of bird flu I can find in print is in a headline in the Detroit News of 24 August 1997. However, there is another in an online report two days earlier which implies the name was invented by a journalist in Hong Kong preparing a story for the news agency Agence France-Presse. Perhaps that person thought that avian influenza was too cumbersome or too difficult and with a few strokes of the keyboard translated it to bird flu. That name was then popularised by the agency report being circulated worldwide within hours. By such methods are new terms invented in our global society.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Jan. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-inf1.htm
Last modified: 3 January 1998.