Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 17, 2020

Etymology in the News, 2: Virus, Hunker Down

Websites, news organizations, social media, broadcast outlets, public officials and the rest of us are devoting millions of words to the current events surrounding the Covid-19 novel coronavirus.

As I wrote in the previous post regarding the word “quarantine,” it’s interesting to consider how we got some of those words into English.

Most obvious: “virus.”

Virus is a Latin word meaning “poison.” In addition to English, most of the Romance languages use it unchanged from its original form, including Spanish, French and Italian.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), virus first appeared in English in 1599. OED discounts appearances of “virus” in English translations from the Latin in 1398 and 1400, considering those to simply be transliterations from Latin, not actually adopted as an English word.

In 1599, English “virus” did not signify an infection in the body. The concept of an invisible pathogen “virus” wasn’t established until 1892. Instead, that instance of virus meant some poisonous liquid, often one spit out as venom. The same applied in 1728, when a writer ascribed Cleopatra’s death to the “virus” of an asp.

Also in 1728, a scientific work first associated the word with an illness or infection. Then, though, it was more about symptoms like inflammation or pus — still “poisons” of a sort — and not about the cause, which would be unknown for another 170 years.

Then, beginning in the 1890s, research by Louis Pasteur, Charles Chamberlain, Dmitry Ivanovsky and others led to an understanding of viruses, and the word was applied to the pathogen.

Hunker Down!

This phrase is popping up everywhere from casual conversations to official communications from government agencies and elected officials. If your version of English doesn’t have the phrase in its lexicon, it means to stay put, not go out, wait it out.

“Hunker” originally meant to squat on one’s haunches, so that ones hams (glutes, whatever) are nearly down on one’s ankles.

The word first enters the domain of English through Scots dialect in 1768. All OED’s early citations are in some written representation of Scotch vernacular. It may have been present orally, but that’s the initial recorded instance.

How it got there isn’t fully known. Hunker may be related to one or more similar words reaching back through Middle Dutch, Middle Low German and Old Norse: hucken, hûken, húka, respectively. Modern German has hocken, to squat or sit.

We can hunker down without knowing precisely how we got the phrase.

I’d be glad to hear from speakers/readers of English in other countries: Do you use the phrase “hunker down?” Please leave a comment.

Check the comments. As I write, I’ve heard from the Netherlands and Australia. I’m happy to have additional comments.

Wash your hands. Look out for one another.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Etymologies from the Oxford English Dictionary Compact Edition and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition, 2000. Information about the discovery of viruses courtesy Wikipedia.


Responses

  1. Hunker is hurken in modern Dutch. If it’s been introduced by the Scotts into English by Maria van Egmond-Gelre(Mary of Guelders) daughter of the duke of Guelders (Gelre) Karel(Charles)van Egmond. Although that would mean the introduction was earlier as she lived between(1429 and 1463) in that case it would come from middle Dutch or middle German as that was the common language in the duchy of Guelders. Which the part of the world where I live.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tremendous insight. Dank je, Niels. Now I have more research to do. I look forward to it.

      Like

      • Pardon my English by the way, I wrote on my phone and now that I read it back it came out different than intended..

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, I’m all but certain I saw the typo, and disregarded it. Your English is always admirable … especially in contrast to my Dutch!

        Like

  2. Let me retry it,

    Hunker is ‘hurken’ or ‘bukken’, in modern Dutch. If ithe word has been introduced by the Scotts into English. Maybe it was by Maria van Egmond-Gelre(Mary of Guelders) daughter of the duke of Guelders (Gelre) Karel(Charles)van Egmond who introduced it. Although that would mean the introduction was earlier as she lived between(1429 and 1463).
    If Mary introduced it, it would come from middle Dutch or middle German as that was the common language in the duchy of Guelders. Which the part of the world where I live.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fascinating, Niels. Thank you. I’ll read about Mary of Guelders.

      Like

  3. While I recognise the term “hunker down”, it is not in common use across Oceania. “Cosset” has been used here in Oz quite a lot lately in respect of COVID-19 self-quarantine and isolation.

    As for “virus” surviving unchanged from Latin across the European language suite…. it’s a “medical” word and until relatively recent times much of both academic and coal-face health care was delivered by those how had to learn Latin as part of their craft.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Bill. “Cosset” is word I almost certainly know thanks to Shakespeare or one of those cats. It’s a versatile and multifaceted language of ours, that’s for certain. As for Latin and medical professionals, correctamundo (which isn’t Latin). Thanks!

      Like

  4. Virus originally meaning poison. Makes sense. As in its derivative “virulent.”

    Liked by 1 person


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