I took five years of Latin in school, and at times it made me want to die. Now that the coronavirus is here, I need that Latin so that I don’t die. And you do too.

Whether the scourge is an epidemic, pandemic, endemic, or hyperendemic depends on classical languages, but there’s a world of difference among those prefixes.

Even the name coronavirus owes its etymology to Latin. The word coronavirus first appeared in print in 1968, along with gross-out, noninvasive, and morning breath. (This might be a good time to mention that you should wash your hands.) When scientists first looked at the virus under a microscope, it looked like the solar corona, which is Latin for crown. Now Corona, one of the most popular beers in the world — which has nothing to do with the virus — has a crown in its logo, and its sales are improbably up despite the similar name.

For words with such different scopes, all of the -demics have similar etymologies. The latter part of the words comes from the Greek demos, meaning, simply, people. Think demography (study of people) or democracy (rule by the people).

But the varying prefixes suggest very different problems.

An epidemic affects lots of people within a particular region or community, while a pandemic cuts across geographic boundaries to affect a significant portion of the population. The epi- prefix was a pretty simple Greek preposition used for on, at, besides, and the like. But pan- means all, and is encompassing enough to be the name of a Greek god (Pan, god of flocks and shepherds) and to get capitalized when it precedes a capitalized word (like Pan-African).

Endemic and hyperendemic, on the other hand (that reminds me: wash your hands), are not nouns at all but adjectives: Endemic refers to the standard levels of a disease (say, an average flu season), and hyperendemic is when those standard levels are elevated (a really bad flu season).

In other words, once your -demics have shifted from adjectives to nouns, start stocking up on hand sanitizer.

But is coronavirus a pandemic or an epidemic? Like so many questions about language, the answer is at least partly political. With confirmed cases in more than 75 countries on six continents, it definitely seems to have spread beyond the more localized epidemic definition. But as recently as last week, the director-general of the World Health Organization declined to label it a pandemic just yet, as that would likely spur panic in an already freaked-out populace. Donald Trump, who went so far as to label reactions to the virus a Democratic hoax, is similarly hesitant to call it a pandemic — perhaps because he got rid of the U.S. government’s pandemic response team back in 2018. Oops.

Knowing the implications of the various prefixes is helpful. But do you really want Latin to save your life?

Lavate istas manus.

The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and honorific circumfixes to jeff@theangrygrammarian.com.


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