Issue 178, page 1

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plural diseases

"Ah," we say. "Ah," and furthermore, "choo!"  Hard on the heels of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness comes the season of chills and high fevers. Our discussions this week turned to disease and we realized that there were a number of questions for which we had no ready answer.  Why, for instance, do so many of them have singular names that sound like plurals?

We were familiar with the disease of mumps but neither of us knew what a mump was or even if such an animal existed. A quick trip to the dictionary revealed that a mump is a grimace made with the mouth or simply the mouth itself. The word may have arisen as indicative of sounds made by lips and is comparable with mumpr, Icelandic for "curly beard".

A child with measles.  Click to learn more.And what about measles, if there is such a thing as a single mump, can one catch just one measle? From a purely etymological standpoint, we'd say yes. The word has been plural ever since early Middle English but the occasional use of measle was probably influenced by the unrelated word mesel (Middle English, "leprous"), from Latin misellus, "little wretched one" (diminutive of miser, "wretched", the origin of our miser and miserable). A measle is a red spot on the skin and was once used to translate the Latin phlegemon ("blood blister"). The true origin of measles is to be found in the ancient Teutonic root *maes- which carried the notion of a spot or surface discoloration. Related words are found in Dutch maese, "spot", Old High German masa "scar" and English mazer "maple" (a tree with patchy bark).

The origin of hives is uncertain but is thought to be a form of heave, because the inflamed patches of skin are raised. Some older dictionaries mention a medicinal compound called hive-syrup and explain that it was made from an extract of squills. Squills is a wild member of the onion family. Did we just say squills is? Yes, we did; squills is yet another singular noun which ends with an ess.

One skin disease is noted for its serpentine eruptions which, eventually, encircle the waist. In medical terminology it is called Herpes zoster, from the Greek herpes, "a snake" and zoster, "a girdle". Its English name is shingles, a corruption of the Latin cingulum, "a girdle". 

The final stages of rabies looked more like madness than a fever; hence rabies, from Latin rabere, "to rave". One of its symptoms is that swallowing the least thing, even a sip of water, causes extreme pain. This gave rise to the belief that rabies sufferers fear water and to its other name - hydrophobia (Greek hydros "water" + phobos, "fear").

Rickets is known to doctors as rachitis. The obvious conclusion is that the word rickets is the result of the common man attempting to pronounce an educated term. In fact, the reverse may be true. While the origin of rickets is not known, it seems that the term rachitis (from Greek rachis "spine" + -itis, "inflammation") was invented as a learned synonym for rickets

Underwater divers come back to the surface slowly lest the nitrogen dissolved in their blood come out of solution, forming bubbles in their body tissues. If this happens the the diver typically bends double with pain. This is why this condition is known as the bends.

Then there's diphtheria... Is a mild dose monophtheria? Well, hardly. Diphtheros was ancient Greek for "leather" and diphtheria is characterized by a tough, leathery membrane which encloses the parts affected by it.

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