News - April 22, 2020

Blog: Corona language

Geert van Zandbrink

Suddenly, certain words appear in the papers on a daily basis. Blogger Geert van Zandbrink seeks the origin of corona words, such as “corona”.

For weeks now, it is the dominant subject of conversation: the corona crisis. The virus has a firm hold on our society and has (re)introduced a whole vocabulary. Certain words appear in the daily papers in these extraordinary times of corona. (“Times”. Have you noticed how everyone seems to be using and abusing this word recently? ‘We need each other in these times’. There is an immediate sense of solemnity and grave momentousness when you speak about the ‘times’ we are now living in.)

I cannot help but observe the origin and development of words from an etymological perspective. The ‘pan’ in ‘pandemic’ indicates that the virus has spread globally, as the newspapers taught us as soon as the epidemic was elevated to a pandemic.

But, did you know that the word ‘quarantine’ originates from the Eighty Years’ War and the VOC? Ships were isolated for forty days upon return, to prevent contagious diseases from being introduced. The French word for forty, ‘quarante’, has thus become part of our daily vocabulary.

The word ‘quarantine’ originates from the Eighty Years’ War and the VOC

The words ‘crisis’ and ‘critical’, which are thrown at us left, right and centre, are etymological siblings. They both stem from the Greek word for ‘decision’: a crisis is a decisive period in a society’s existence, while a person in critical condition is in a crucial stage of their illness.

The coronavirus itself is named after a distinguishing feature in the particle, that has the appearance of a crown, the Latin word for crown or wreath is ‘corona’. This word is familiar to students from the cantus: before drinking, it is customary to say ‘prosit corona’. Thus hailing the surrounding circle of fellow students with whom you celebrate a fraternising cantus. And check the Corona beer bottles in the supermarket: their logo features a crown.

And, did you know the word ‘vaccine’ comes from the Latin word for cow? This is because the bovine smallpox virus was historically used to foster immunity to smallpox. I could go on for ages, keeping myself well occupied during these times of corona, crisis and quarantine.

Geert van Zandbrink studies Economics and Governance.