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Interesting Etymologies: A Cold Shoulder

In the last edition, Jonathon gave us a lovely description of how frickin’ cold Monash gets during winter but now the first breath of ‘the spring of the year’ is now in the air (or, y’know, just ‘spring’ to us modern folks). Originally meaning ‘the source of water from the ground’, ‘spring’ later came to refer to any emergent state and furthermore to the emergent season at the start of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). Spring may have sprung, but here I am being plagued by a different kind of cold, a head cold.

We now know that the common cold is a viral infection (the name virus predates the discovery of viral infections and is derived from the Latin word for poison) and not, as long thought, the consequence of being out in the cold or wet too long. This outdated thinking gives us expressions such as the chills, and the confusing doublet of to catch a cold and to catch cold. The latter of this pair seems to be becoming more associated with the idea of the chills (simply being cold and chattery) whereas catching a cold relates to the viral infection. While we might be catching a cold in English, the Japanese will be plucking or pulling the disease, which literally translates to wicked wind. I don’t know about you, but a springtime virus feels much more like plucking the wicked wind to me. That awful symptom of mucous inflammation of the nose and throat when you’re sick? That’s catarrh, from the Greek katá ‘down’ + rhéō ‘I flow’. It’s the same flow we see at the end of diseases such as diarrhoea (dia ‘through’) and gonorrhoea (gonos ‘sperm’; the same root of the word ‘gonad’). Even good old phlegm is taken from the Greek phlegma ‘flame, inflammation’.

I’ve probably gotten you feeling about as sick as I do right now, so I guess I’ll end with a topic to make you feel worse. Student elections are coming up, giving you an opportunity to vote (from Latin votum ‘a vow, wish’) to elect (Latin again, e[x]- ‘out’ + legere ‘pick’) your student council (more Latin, con- ‘together’ + calare ‘summon’). The Greeks gave us this system; it’s called democracy (dēmos ‘the people’ + -kratia ‘power, rule’).

Tags : Wordplay
Asher Cameron

The author Asher Cameron

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