What’s in a name?

In Katherine Ann Porter’s short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the protagonist Miranda Gay has a near-death experience with the 1918 influenza pandemic . However, “influenza” was not the only name which was used for this globally spread disease and the pattern of naming it across the world is actually quite interesting. The British science journalist Laura Spinney writes in her 2017 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World:

….people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.

Spinney, Laura. (2017). Pale rider: the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Vintage. p. 36. 

As wartime censorship suppressed the reporting of the flu in allied countries, the news of its spread in Spain (which was neutral in WW1) went across and countries like America, France, and Britain were quick to assign the name and the blame- “Spanish flu”. Thus, as the disease arrived across nations, the practice of blaming an already existing common “national enemy” or a particular group was followed.

This also relates to what we read earlier in the Justin Stearns’ 2009 essay “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death”. Stearns writes:

One irony deserves to be mentioned in this context, namely that where Jewish authors at times refer to the plagues God sent upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians as a sign of God’s ability to punish sinners, Muslim scholars at times cite a Prophetic tradition explaining that the origin of plague lies in a punishment that God sent down upon the Jews long ago, and Pope Clement VI noted in a mass the example of David’s sin resulting in the punishment of the people of Israel by plague (Second Samuel 24:15–19).

Stearns, Justin. (2009). New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death 1. History Compass, vol. 7(5), p. 1363-1375.

Religious groups also promptly assigned the blame of the plague on other groups, finding a common enemy and cause for their own group (reminds me of this meme). For example, with the current pandemic in India, this was done by blaming Muslims, an already persecuted minority, by pointing to a Muslim religious gathering as the root cause of the infection’s rampage in the country.

This practice of blaming gives a persona to the hitherto unfamiliar and strange disease and provides an unjustified but easy channel for venting out the anger and hate against the disease by putting it on the blamed group. To prevent such unjustified names (and to some extent the blames) from sticking around or even making it to official proceedings, the World Health Organization (WHO) has instated naming conventions that prevent the use of specific identifiers such as places, people or animals. The naming COVID-19, shorthand for COronaVIrus Disease – 2019, does follow these protocols. However, we are all also familiar with the American president calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus”. Hence, it is up to us and especially leaders in power, to be careful of the implication of the names we do use in our vocabulary.

P.S. On the lighter side of things, sometimes this name and blame game does not have to come down to a particular group as was the case when the 1918 influenza pandemic came to Spain:

So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.

Spinney, Laura. (2017). Pale rider: the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Vintage. p. 36. 


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  1. This is great, Yaman. Thanks. I’ve been meaning to look at the Laura Spinney book more closely: I take it you would recommend it?

    • Definitely! Full disclosure that I read only a couple of chapters around the naming, but the information was super interesting. I also enjoyed the writing style a lot, the author was really clear and quite funny at times (which I always appreciate).

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