Coronavirus words pandemic vs. epidemic definition

The Origins and Definition of Pandemic Related Words

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Word Nerd – Corona Virus Edition

This time on Word Nerd, I wanted to explore the origins of some of the words we’ve been hearing in the news during this unprecedented time on our planet. I find that writing and researching words helps me stay grounded and reminds me of the connections we have through the words and languages we share. I hope that learning about these words helps you too.

Side note on Proto Indo European (PIE) language: 

In my etymology posts, you’ll sometimes see me refer to PIE, and although that does resemble one of my favorite desserts, in this case, it stands for Proto Indo European, which is a theoretical language that was created using linguistic reconstruction.

PIE is fascinating because it is essentially an ancestral language that links many modern languages spoken today.  Indo-European is a large family of languages, spoken by about half the world’s population including English, Spanish, German, Russian, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Albanian, Lithuanian, Persian, Hindi, and Hittite.

Since it was likely to have been spoken in Neolithic times, no one has ever heard anyone speaking PIE, yet its roots can be heard in the words we use every day.  I have most certainly used a very large amount of PIE root words in writing this paragraph.


First recorded in the 1660s, this word comes from the Latin word pandemus, which itself comes from the Greek pandemospan- meaning “all, every, whole,” derived from PIE pant- meaning “all,” and dēmos, meaning “people.”  You’ll recognize dēmos, in words like demotic, which refers to the language of the common people.  The word dēmos actually comes from the PIE roots da- and mo- which together mean “division.”  Thus this word implies a division between the common people and the elite.

The -ic part of pandemic is a word-forming element from Middle English -ick, –ike, or -ique, that’s used for making adjectives.  It means, “being, made of, caused by, similar to, having to do with, having the nature of.”  It comes from French -ique, from Latin -icus, and Greek -ikos, all of which come from the PIE suffix -(i)ko

This suffix is thought to be the origin of the Slavic suffix -sky, Polish -ski, and Russian -skii and means “pertaining to.” You’ll recognize this suffix in many Slavic names, like for example my dear sweet friend Jenn Sutkowski’s name.

The word epidemic is older than pandemic and it is thought that the word pandemic was modeled after epidemic.

Pandemic is a pretty fun and challenging board game as well and might be worth checking out for something to do during social distancing.


During the Black Plague of the mid 1300s, Venice established a 30-day isolation, or in Italian, trenta giorni or, trentino on all ships attempting to make port in order to assure that no one on board was infected.  This was eventually extended to 40 days, quaranta giorni, or quarantino.  From Latin quadraginta, meaning, “forty” and quattuor, meaning, “four,” and further back from the PIE root kwetwer- also meaning, “four.”

Its use as a period of isolation not necessarily related to disease was first recorded in the 1520s and stood for the length of time in which a widow had the right to stay in her husband’s house after his death, which was forty days.

Its use as a verb was first recorded in 1804.


First recorded in the 1650s, from Latin, corona, meaning, “crown,” from Ancient Greek, korōnè, meaning, “garland, wreath.”  In ancient Rome, this word specifically referred to a type of garland or crown given to people who performed admirably in military service. The word comes from a PIE root sker- (2) or ker-, which means “to turn, or bend.”  You’ll recognize this root in words like circle, circumference.

In many European and Scandinavian countries, currency is often referred to as crowns, or kroner due to the habit of imprinting the current monarch on the coins. 

The circle of light seen around the sun during a total solar eclipse is also called the corona, and was named in 1890 by Spanish Basque astronomer José Joaquín de Ferrer.


First recorded in English in the late 14th century, this word comes to us from the Latin, virus, meaning, “poison, sap of plants, slimy liquid, a potent juice,” from Proto-Italic weis-o-(s-) meaning, “poison,” itself likely from the PIE root ueis-, meaning “slime, rot, strong smell, poison.”  You can find the root ueis- in words like viscous and viscosity.

Its use as a noun to describe something that causes infectious disease was first used in 1728.  Louis Pasteur, famous for his breakthroughs in the creation of the rabies vaccine, speculated that viruses existed, but the observation of a virus by microscope wouldn’t happen until 36 years after his death, when the electron microscope was invented in 1931.


Believe it or not, this word actually relates to cows!  Don’t worry, I’ll explain.  The Latin name for the cowpox virus is variolae vaccinae, which comes from Latin, vaccinus, meaning, “from or pertaining to cows.” 

The word vacca, in Latin, means “cow” and no one is sure of its origin.  Incidentally, the English word cow is a very old word dating back to the PIE root gwou- and is pretty much the same in all Germanic languages. 

Anyway back to vaccine!  Smallpox was a very big problem for humans prior to around 1800.  It was observed that milkmaids, due to having been exposed to a similar but much less deadly infection called cowpox, had developed an immunity to smallpox. British physician Edward Jenner accidentally invented the vaccine by injecting people with the cowpox virus, or vaccinae, making them immune to smallpox as well. The word wasn’t used in reference to other diseases until Louis Pasteur (mentioned above) started doing so. 


From Old French plage, via Latin plaga meaning “wound,” and plangere, meaning, “to strike, or lament.”  Or from the Greek, plaga, meaning, “blow,” as in a hit or strike.  All of these words come from the PIE root plak- (2), meaning “to strike.” 

You’ll find this root in words like plankton, complain, and apoplexy.  The word plague came into use in English in the 1540s as a term for a pestilence with many casualties after the bubonic plague began to scourge Europe. 


This word comes from Old English fefor, or fefer, which is from the Latin febris and is related to another Latin word fovere meaning “to warm, or heat.”  There is some debate on the origin of febris or foever.  Some linguists think it’s from the PIE root dhegh-, meaning “burn.”  Others speculate it comes from an old Sanskrit word element bhur-, meaning “to be restless.”

I hope this journey through language, geography, science, and history was a welcome break from the news. Stay safe out there, readers.  

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