I recently received a reminder to get my annual flu shot, and that started me wondering how influenza got its name. I knew it meant “influence” in Italian, but why not call it “crudosis” or something that sounds like the nasty disease it is?
“Influenza” is a pretty word, one that sounds like it should be a musical term or perhaps the name of a flowing stream. Actually, the word does come from the same root as a lot of others that mean “flowing” (fluid, flume, fluctuate, flux, etc.). According to one etymologist, the meaning of the word “influence” (a flowing in) comes from “an early astrological belief that from the stars there flowed, or emanated, a fluid that affected the lives and characters of men. From the Italian form “influenza” comes the name of the epidemic more commonly known as the “flu.” Apparently, it was once believed that an outbreak of an epidemic was due to the influence of the stars.
As for words that sound as if they ought to mean something other than what they do mean, how about “crepuscular”? That one sounds as though it ought to mean something even more unpleasant than influenza. I can imagine telling my doctor, “Doc, I have this crepuscular stuff flowing out of my ear.” He would probably tell me not to worry about it, and he might even explain that “crepuscular” means resemblance to twilight or something active in twilight.
A German word for twilight comes to mind, but you have to put those two little dots, the umlaut, over the “a.” The word is “dammerung,” and we usually see it in the word “Gotterdammerung,” which requires two umlauts, one over the “o” and one over the “a.” It means “twilight of the gods.” It is a familiar word to opera buffs, since it is the last opera in Richard Wagner’s tetralogy, “The Ring of the Nibelung.” Talk about words that ought to mean something else! It would probably do for an exclamation when you drop a hot casserole on a freshly mopped floor. Gotterdammerung!
I like words that are right on, that mean what they really ought to mean, and I can’t think of a better one than Mark Twain’s coinage “balditude.” From “Huckleberry Finn” we have this: “Trouble has done it, Bilgewater; trouble has done it; trouble has brung these gray hairs and this premature balditude.”
It is curious that we don’t have an infinitive form of the word (to bald), or a past tense (balded), but we have the participial “balding.” We do have an adjective that sounds as though it ought to mean anything but “bald.” The word is “glabrous.” There’s also a noun that means “bald-headed man.” That word is “pilgarlic.” I still think Twain’s balditude is best. “Trouble has brung this glabrousness”? or “Trouble has caused me to be a pilgarlic”? No! Balditude beats these by a mile! But I digress.
I was recently offered a flu shot when I was in the hospital for an intestinal disorder. What’s one more hole in my arm, I thought. So, I’m protected from influenza, or at least certain strains of it. All fograms are urged to get their flu shots. You may know us by the shortened form of fogram: “fogy.” As in, "You old fogy.”