A recent attack of shingles—the disease, not the building material—caused me to seek answers to the following questions:

  1.  Had the shot I had gotten to prevent this affliction been a dud and, if so, could I get my money back?
  2. Why is the condition called “shingles” and, more generally, how do diseases get their names anyway? (When William Burroughs said, “Language is a virus from outer space,” he may have had in mind the way in which such simple questions as “Why is the condition called ‘shingles’?” can metastasize to a blog posting.)

 The answer that my primary care physician offered in the first case was that the inoculation against shingles wasn’t really 100% guaranteed but that it undoubtedly made the attack milder than it would have been without it—sort of like TARP—and, no, I couldn’t have my money back (also sort of like TARP).

The answer to the second question about the origin of the word shingles as the popular name for the affliction known in Medicalese as Herpes zoster is succinctly offered by the OED, which defines it as “An eruptive disease (Herpes zoster) often extending round the middle of the body like a girdle (whence the name); usually accompanied by violent neuralgic pain,” the accompanying etymology being “Representing medieval Latin cingulus (MS. gloss in Du Cange), variant of cingulum girdle, used to render Greek ζώνη or ζωστήρ in the medical sense.” Greek ζώνη and ζωστήρ both meant ‘girdle, belt;’ originally, the former applied to an article of women’s clothing worn just above the hips, while the latter referred to a warrior’s belt, which, according to Liddell and Scott, “passed around the loins and secured the bottom of the cuirass.” Borrowed from Greek, Latin zona was a ‘girdle, belt’ and appears in Modern French as zona ‘shingles’ and, as in English, zone, whose various meanings reflect the notion of a belt or ring. (Gürtelrose is the German term for ‘shingles.’) The Herpes part of the medical term, like ζώνη and ζωστήρ, is also Greek and is glossed by Liddell and Scott as “herpes, a cutaneous eruption, that runs on and spreads, esp. around the body,” the noun being derived from the verb ἕρπω ‘to creep,’ whose root appears in ἕρπ ετόν ‘creeping thing, snake’ (compare English serpent), making “Herpes zoster” somewhat like wearing both lexical suspenders and a belt.  (As for the shingles used to tile your roof, the word’s  origin is unclear but surely has nothing to do with belts.)

 Shingles, typically a disease of one’s golden years, has its origin in the chickenpox you caught as the result of having been sent to Billy’s house with all the other neighborhood kids to play when word got out that he was contagious. (Or if you somehow avoided the disease when you were a kid, you might have had the ill fortune to catch it from your own children and be really sick.) So, why is it called “chickenpox?” Just as shingles the malady has nothing to do with shingles the building material (from Late Latin scindula, a variant of scandula ‘wooden slat used for roofing’ and of obscure origin), so chickenpox has nothing to do with birds, or not much anyway: The disease neither afflicts chickens, nor do humans catch it from them. (Contrast cowpox, which affects only cattle, or avian flu, a virus that is passed from birds to humans.) Essentially, the chicken part of chickenpox seems to refer to the relative blandness/insignificant nature of the disease when compared to, say, smallpox, which, though considered more serious than chickenpox, was not thought to be as serious as the great pox (syphilis). The relative seriousness of the (typically childhood) diseases of chickenpox and smallpox are reflected in their Latin names (varicella and variola, respectively, both diminutive forms of Latin varus ‘pustule,’ possibly influenced by Latin varius ‘spotted’). As has often been the case, the Latin terms came into currency at a later date than the corresponding common names for the diseases, a sociolinguistic phenomenon on which Siddhartha Mukherjee has written illuminatingly (in his The Emperor of All Maladies): 

“Unable to find a unifying explanation for it, and seeking a name for this condition,  Virchow ultimately settled for weisses Blut—white blood—no more then a literal  descriptions of the millions of white blood cells he had seen under the microscope. In 1847 he changed the name to the more academic-sounding ‘leukemia’—from leukos, the Greek word for ‘white.’”

He then goes on to say, “Renaming the disease—from the florid ‘suppuration of blood’ to the flat weisses Blut—hardly seems like an act of scientific genius, but it had a profound impact on the understanding of leukemia. An illness, at the moment of its discovery, is a fragile idea, a hothouse flower—deeply, disproportionately influenced by names and classifications. (More than a century later, in the early 1980’s, another change in name—from gay related immune disease (GRID) to acquired immuno deficiency syndrome (AIDS)—would signal an epic shift in the understanding of that disease.)”

So, here are some answers to our initial general question: How do diseases get named?

  • By metonymy: Diseases get named after their most notable symptom(s). So, leukemia gets its name from the proliferation of white blood cells that characterizes the disease just as shingles and the various the poxes get theirs from their pustules, or, pocks. Measles and rubeola belong to this club as well.  
  • Greco-Latin fancification: leukemia is a literal translation of weisses Blut (plus the suffix –ia denoting a condition); variola and varicella convey the notion that the main feature of their diseases is pustules (pocks), and each is less severe than the great pox (for which, apparently, no one has thought to coin a one-word Latin name, a matter that we will explore later).
  • The process by which GRID and AIDS got their names is not so easy to characterize. The fact that GRID and AIDS are handy acronyms makes them easy to remember but doesn’t tell us about their symptoms. Perhaps like influenza—literally, ‘influence,’ because it was the influence of the heavens that was thought to have made you sick—the affliction now known as AIDS was originally named somewhat obliquely after its supposed cause (gay sex).
  • Another “how” zipped by under the radar here, namely: the origin of the word syphilis. The spoiler is that “Syphilis” was the name of a (fictional) person who famously suffered from the disease, but thereby hangs a tale to be told in a subsequent posting. Stay tuned.
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