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.