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influenza

Printable Version
Pronunciation: in-flu-en-zê Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. A highly contagious viral infection, characterized by inflammation of the respiratory tract, fever or chills, sore throat, and muscular discomfort; grippe. 2. (British) Any fast-spreading craze or mania, as in the rap music influenza.

Notes: Since we are in the midst of the flu season, we thought you might like to know where this word came from. Today's Good Word is seldom pronounced fully in its first sense above; it is usually 'clipped'. Clippings are usually shortened to either the first syllable, e.g. representative, doctor, or the last syllable, e.g. omnibus, telephone. Influenza is clipped both ways, down to just flu. The adjective is influenzal, although influenzoid "influenza-like" sometimes appears in the medical literature.

In Play: Flu is now the most common term for this disease: "The Google Flu Trends estimates that the number of searches for information on influenza begins to rise in November, reaches a peak in December, and begins to fall in January." Really? However, the British usage should not be forgotten by our English-speaking friends around the world: "The tattoo influenza seems to have spread in the past decade throughout the world."

Word History: Today's word was borrowed from Italian influenza "influence, influenza" in the Middle Ages, when people believed that illness was caused by the influence of the stars. The word goes back to Medieval Latin influentia "influx", from Latin influen(t)s "flowing in", the present participle of influere "to flow into". This verb consists of in "in(to)" + fluere "to flow". Latin inherited the root of this verb from Proto-Indo-European bhleu- "blow". We have seen PIE [bh] become [f] before in Latin fornax "furnace", the root of which turns up in English burn. So we would expect this root to turn up little affected in Germanic languages. And so it does. In English we have blow and bladder, something out of which our ancestors created bagpipes, played by blowing into them. Latin also made the word that we borrowed for our flatulence. I leave the semantics of this derivation up to you, dear reader. (Let's now thank Jackie Strauss of Philadelphia for suggesting today's Good Word. Jackie has had a strong influence on our word series.)

Dr. Goodword, alphaDictionary.com

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