February 2012


Here are two questions that were left lurking under the covers of the recent “Pox and Pains (Stage 2)” posting to this blog:

  1. What was syphilis called in England between the time of the outbreak of the epidemic of circa 1495 and the  publication of Nahum Tate’s1686 translation of Fracastoro’s 1530 Syphilis sive morbus gallicus from which the disease got its name?
  2. Is there any linguistic evidence in English for the occurrence of the disease in the Old World prior to 1493? (If there were, obviously, we would conclude that syphilis was not an import from theNew World as has often been suggested.)

 One approach to answering these questions would be to look in the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED). Published in 2009, the HTOED encompasses the lexical corpus afforded primarily by the OED, supplemented by some of the contents of A Thesaurus of Old English, a work compiled by two of the HTOED’s four editors (Roberts and Kay). As the first thesaurus to offer both synchronic and diachronic views of our language, this marvelous book (or rather pair of them—the thesaurus proper and its index) is invaluable not only as a compendium of the lexicon of contemporary (written) English but, uniquely, because it is a historical thesaurus, affording multiple views of our language at various times, superimposed on each other. Hence, any given entry can show you what the word for X was (if any) at such and such a date and what replaced or supplemented it at later dates.

 Syphilis appears in the HTOED under the entry for Venereal disease [HTOED 01.02.01.01.04.18.18 (n.), where the numbers represent the word’s address in the HTOED’s taxonomy: 01. (the world).02 (life).01 (health and disease).01 (ill health).04 (a disease).18 (disorders of the internal organs).18 (venereal disease). The entry is worth quoting in full:

Venereal disease burning 1382-1860 ∙ bone-ache 1398–1606; 1900 ∙ venerean disease 1612 ∙ crinkums/crincums 1618-1719 ∙ venereal disease 1658-  ∙ bone-ague 1659 ∙ crankums 1661 ∙ venereal 1843; 1843 ∙ V.D./v.d. 1920-  ∙ a certain disease 1927-  ∙ social disease 1978 01 person fireship 1672-1748 (slang) ∙ venereal 1788; 1933 02 attack of a dose 1914- ∙ load 1937 (slang) 03 syphilis pocks 1480-1529 ∙ grandgore 1497-1716 (chiefly Scots) ∙ Spanish pocks 1500/20-1681 ∙ French pox 1503; 1740 ∙ great pox 1529-1819 ∙ pock 1530 ∙ French pocks a1548 ∙ pox 1550- ∙ French crown 1590 ∙ French marbles a1592 ∙ Neapolitan favour 1592 ∙ verol 1596 ∙ French disease 1598; 1760/92 ∙ verola 1600 ∙  the foul evil 1607 ∙ Spanish pox 1608 ∙ grincome 1608-1678 (slang) ∙ Scottish fleas 1623 ∙ Neapolitan 1631 ∙ lues 1634- ∙ scabbado 1651-1725 ∙ Neapolitan disease 1657-1777 ∙ Neapolitan scab 1671 ∙ Covent-garden gout 1694; 1700 ∙ Spanish gout a1700 ∙ common-garden gout 1700 ∙ Neapolitan consolation a1704 ∙ syphilis 1718- ∙ syphilide 1829-1897 ∙ syphiloderm(a) 1852; 1876 ∙ neurosyphilis 1878- ∙ vaccino-syphilis 1878- ∙ syphiloid 1890- ∙ syph/siph 1914- (slang) ∙ bejel 1928- 04 gonorrhoea gonorrhoea 1547- ∙ running of the reins 1569; 1607 ∙ shedding of nature 1584 ∙ clap 1587- ∙ r(hea) 1935- (joc.) 05 other venereal diseases Winchester goose 1611-1727 ∙ Winchestrian goose a1637 ∙ crystalline 1647 ∙ soft chancre 1859- ∙ chancroid 1861 ∙ soft sore 1884- ∙ granulomatosis 1911- ∙ trichomoniasis 1915- ∙ granuloma inguinale 1918- ∙ LGV 1949 ∙ chlamydia/Chlamydia 1984- 06 disease caused by masturbation wanker’s doom 1950- (slang vulgar).” (AIDS, in case you were wondering, is listed elsewhere, under Bacterial/viral disorders [HTOED 01.02.01.01.04.24 (n.)] 02 viral disorders 02.01 Aids acquired immune deficiency syndrome 1982- (Medicine/Obstetrics) ∙ AIDS/Aids 1982- ∙ gay plague 1982- (colloq., orig. US) ∙ Slim (disease) 1985-. )

 Clearly, there were several terms or phrases preceding syphilis that speakers of English could use to refer to the disease. (For an entertaining and informative exposition of a number of these, see Paul Brewster’s “A Note on the ‘Winchester Goose’ and Kindred Topics,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 13, issue 4 [1958].) Most of these are etymologically pretty straightforward, though some, like crinkums/crincums, crankums, and grincome are quite obscure (and not, as one might have guessed, derived from the name of a Jacobean law firm). The origins of the terms  grandgore and the marbles of French marbles are, respectively, surely and probably borrowings from French—marbles is probably Medieval French morbilles ‘(smallpox) pustules’ from Latin morbilli ‘pustules, pox;’ while grandgore is from grand/grant (‘great’) plus gorre/gaurre, a word of obscure origin that may or may not have anything to do with gorre (Old French gore) ‘sow, piglet’ or another gorre attested in the 1400s meaning ‘luxury, fastidious appearance.’ So much for question #1.

What about question #2? Well, as far as the lexical evidence goes for the existence of the disease of syphilis in Europe before Columbus’s round trip to Hispaniola, the returns are not exactly what one would call clear cut. Burning, bone-ache, and pocks/pox, all of which are attested before 1490, are problematic in their imprecision. That is, all three terms could refer to any of a number of afflictions, not just syphilis specifically. For example, the HTOED (perhaps hedging its bets) lists burning 1382-1860 under both Venereal disease and Eruptive diseases [HTOED 01.02.01.01.04.11 (n.)] 04 erysipelas, which Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (27th ed. 1988) defines as “[Gr. erythros red + pella skin] an acute form of cellulitis…chiefly characterized by a peripherally spreading hot, bright red, …plaque with a raised undurated border.” (Shingles and smallpox appear as erysipelas’s next-door neighbors, at 16.2 and 17, respectively.) There is a similar problem with pocks/pox, which could refer to a number of pustule-raising diseases—indeed, it wasn’t until the early 1500s that the distinction between the great pox and small(-)pox came into currency—and so makes an appearance in multiple entries in the HTOED.

 But this is one of the problems with writing a thesaurus: sometimes you’re not sure what pigeonhole to put a word in because you aren’t sure what the word actually refers to—X  could refer to Y or it could refer to Z, or both, or maybe something that’s like Y and Z but it’s not exactly clear what—so pocks/pox can go in multiple places on the grounds that it can refer to multiple distinct entities; Winchester goosecan go in a catch-all category because we know it refers to a venereal disease but we’re not sure which one (syphilis or gonorrhea being the most likely); and wanker’s doom can be in a class by itself (appropriately enough) at least until dhat makes it into the OED.

So, how did syphilis get its name? The short answer is that syphilis is an eponym—like boycott, guillotine, aphrodisiac, and the venereal of venereal disease—that is, syphilis takes its name from a person (in this case, fictional) irrevocably associated with it. (Charles Cunningham Boycott was a rent collector famously shunned during the Irish Land League movement in the late 1800s; Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was a prominent reform-minded proponent of a more socially egalitarian and expeditious mechanism for performing capital punishment, namely, the head-lopping device invented in the mid-1800s by Antoine Louis and originally dubbed the louisette; venereal is the adjectival form of Venus, Roman goddess of love; and aphrodisiac harkens back to Aphrodite, Venus’s Greek counterpart.) Syphilis was the hapless shepherd immortalized in Girolamo Fracastoro’s Syphilis sive morbus gallicus [‘Syphilis or the French Disease’], a poem in three sections (libri, literally, ‘books’) published in 1530 for which Nahum Tate produced an English translation in 1686.

 Fracastoro, a scientist and physician renowned in his day and often credited subsequently as the father of the germ theory of contagion, was born in Verona in 1482 in time to experience the return in 1493 of Columbus from his voyage of discovery to the New World, the French invasion of Naples in 1494, the expulsion of the French shortly thereafter by, among others, the Spanish, and a major epidemic of syphilis that rapidly spread throughout Europe circa 1495. The closeness of the dates for contact with the New World, the various military maneuvers in Naples, and the eruption of the syphilis epidemic made for much finger-pointing regarding the genesis of the disease at the time, neatly summarized by D. Luis María Ramirez y de las Casas-Deza in a note to his 1863 Spanish translation of Fracastoro’s poem: “It was called [in Italian] the morbo gálico, or French disease, which was the most common popular name, but it was also called lots of other things by other people. The Spanish, thinking that they had caught it from the French, called it the French Disease [mal francés]; the French, thinking that they had caught the disease in Naples, called it the Neapolitan Disease [mal napolitano]; the Germans, perceiving that congress with the Spanish had given it to them, called it Spanish Scabies [sarna española], and others called it Measles of the Indies [sarampión de las Indias]…”

What is left unacknowledged here, of course, is the old and widely used linguistic practice of employing the name of an enemy or otherwise disfavored nation or people in idioms with negative connotations, often designating or relating to various of our bodily functions (especially those involving sexual congress). For example, the English and the French from their long history of on-again-off-again hostilities have accumulated a wealth of  such expressions. For example,  a condom has been known as a French letter or Frenchie in English and, in French, as a capote anglaise  (lit., ‘English bonnet,’ though there is apparently no French equivalent to the English French tickler); since the redcoats triumphed at the bloody battle of Waterloo, the French can say that les anglais sont arrivés (ont débarqué)—‘the English have arrived (have landed)’—when you get your period, while to French can mean a variety oral activities–the kiss, known in France in the 19th century as un baiser florentin—‘a Florentine kiss’—is now typically called un French kiss. There are likewise numerous English expressions referring to the Dutch in less than laudatory terms though, with the exception of Dutch cap ‘pessary,’ sometimes known in French as a truc américaine (‘American thingamajig’), these tend to refer to other nonsexual stereotypical traits. Indeed, nobody apparently ever referred to syphilis as “the Dutch disease.” Or, for that matter, with the exception of the Scots, as “the English disease.”

 Suffice it to say the questions of where and how syphilis actually originated and the specifics of how it was spread were murky and clearly tinged with xenophobic overtones—one can’t help noting the parallels in this regard between the syphilis epidemic of the 1490s and that of AIDS five centuries later.  As for syphilis’s geographical origin,  the question is open to this day as to whether the disease was an import from the New World or whether it was already extant in some form in Europe. Fracastoro, arguably influenced by his sympathy towards the Spanish, cast his vote for the already-extant origin of the disease, conjecturing that the agent of contagion—the causal “seeds” (semina)—had simply been dormant and were essentially air borne as the result of Nature unpredictably stirring things up. As for the details of how the disease was communicated, it wasn’t until after the publication of  Syphilis that the role of sex in its transmission was fully understood.

The poem itself is actually less concerned with where the disease came from than with its recommended treatment. Book I presents Fracastoro’s take on the story of the disease’s origin and transmission—the French (not the Spanish), brought it to Italy but it was really Nature that was responsible for managing the seeds of contagion. Book II offers a cure—the elimination of bodily fluids, mercury being a “medicine” effective in stimulating the salivary glands and, applied to the skin, in causing the sufferer to sweat profusely. The revelation of this cure is made in the context of a mythic tale of a hunter named Ilceus who is punished with the disease for killing one of Apollo’s deer but is rescued by the goddess Callirhoë, who takes him underground where he is bathed in mercury and is cured. Fracastoro finishes by recommending this cure with instructions for how to administer it.

That would have been the end of the story (and we would perhaps be calling the disease ilceus instead of syphilis) had it not been for the discovery in the New World of guaiacum (Spanish guayacán from Taíno waiacan) and its apparent superiority, when its bark was properly prepared, to mercury as a miracle cure. (It is an ironic twist to the AIDS story that guaiacum was first brought back to Europe from Haiti.) To take account of the new treatment, Fracastoro added to the first two books a third in which guaiacum is the cure for another mythic character who ran afoul of the gods–this time the victim is a shepherd named Syphilis who is punished for an act of hubris but is then forgiven thanks to the intercession and ministrations of the goddess Juno. The rest is history: Though guaiacum was eventually discredited as a cure for syphilis, the eponym for the disease has survived to this day.