Sunday, May 7, 2017

Infectious diseases, Part 1a: Introduction

[This entry is an excerpt from the chapter "Words about infectious diseases" of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]


An infectious disease is one ‘caused by the entrance into the body of organisms (as bacteria, protozoans, fungi, or viruses) which grow and multiply there’ (MW). There are many types of infections, from the mild common cold to some that are quite lethal. Approximately 17% of all deaths are caused by infectious diseases nowadays.

An infection is typically communicated from another organism, such as another human or animal, and thus, an infectious disease is also known as a communicable disease or a transmissible disease (Sp. enfermedad transmisible), which is defined as ‘an infectious disease transmissible from person to person, animal to animal, animal to man, or man to animal by direct contact with an affected individual or his discharges or by indirect means (as by a vector)’ (WNTIU). (Cf. the related words Eng. transmission ~ Sp. transmisión, Eng. transmit ~ Sp. transmitir.) When the transmission takes place from an affected person (or their discharges) to another, a communicable disease is also known as a contagious disease (Sp. enfermedad contagiosa).

There are many types of agents of infection, also known as (‘bad’) germs or pathogens (Sp. gérmenes nocivos). The main meaning of the words Eng. germ ~ Sp. germen is ‘a microorganism, especially one which causes disease’ (COED). Eng. borrowed the word germ [ˈʤɜɹm]] in the 15th century from Middle French germe with the meaning ‘an initial stage from which something may develop: the germ of a brilliant idea’ (COED). In the 17th century it developed the sense ‘a portion of an organism capable of developing into a new one or part of one’ (COED), as in the phrase wheat germ. The ‘pathogen’ or ‘harmful microorganism’ sense developed in the late 19th century, probably in the French version of this word (1873). The word ultimately comes from Lat. germen (genitive: germĭnis) ‘a sprig, offshoot, sprout, bud’ (L&S). Spanish borrowed the word germen directly from the Latin nominative germen in the 18th century, calquing all the three senses the cognate word has in English and French.

The best-known germs are viruses and bacteria, but there are others, such as viroids, prions, nematodes (such as parasitic roundworms and pinworms), arthropods (such as ticks, mites, fleas, and lice), fungi (such as ringworm), and other macroparasites (such as tapeworms and other helminths) (WP). For more on these different types of germs, see §34.2.9 below. Some of the most common infectious diseases are influenza (flu, grippe), measles, cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, malaria, meningitis, pneumonia (many different causes), strep throat, typhoid (fever), tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, yellow fever, and various sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). All of these diseases will be explored in this chapter.[1]

The fact that many diseases are caused by microorganisms, living organisms that are too small to be seen, was discovered only recently in the history of humanity. The claim that diseases are caused by microorganisms is known as the germ theory of disease (Sp. teoría microbiana de la enfermedad or teoría germinal de las enfermedades infecciosas). The theory was first proposed in the 16th century by Girolamo Fracastoro, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the theory started to be accepted after it became associated with scientists such as the French Louis Pasteur and the German Robert Koch. Bacteria (sing. bacterium; Sp. bacteria) were first observed in 1676 by Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, but viruses were not discovered until the 1890s.

The first attempt to explain disease rationally, not by appealing to supernatural (magical or religious) forces, was with the Ancient Greeks, though their theories were not scientific or very empirical. In the 5th century BCE, Empedocles theorized that the universe was composed of four elements, fire, air, earth, and water, and this led to a later proposal by the Hippocratic school that humans contained four bodily humors, blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile), and that disease was the result of an imbalance or disharmony among the four humors. This theory, known as humorism or humoralism, actually may have had its origin in Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, and it was prevalent in Western, as well as Arab, medicine until the 19th century.

Note that magical theories of disease survived during this time as well, since many people still ascribe the source of diseases to divine punishment, evil supernatural creatures (demonic theory of disease), or even the sun, the moon, or the planets (sol-lunar and planetary theories of disease). The germ theory of disease was anticipated by the miasma (or miasmatic) theory of disease (Sp. teoría miasmática de la enfermedad). According to this theory (certain) diseases were caused by miasma, a noxious form of ‘bad air’, also known as ‘night air’, which is not way off the mark since germs thrive in decomposing matter.[2] Note that we still do not understand the nature of all diseases and some diseases may have a strong psychological component, namely the psychosomatic diseases (Sp. enfermedades sicosomáticas).

Not all diseases are caused by microorganisms, however. Infection is only one of the possible causes of disease. The word disease can be defined as ‘a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body resulting from the effect of genetic or developmental errors, infection, poisons, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity, or unfavorable environmental factors’ (RHWU). We will discuss the different sources and types of disease in §34.2 below.

In addition, although there is no doubt today that microorganisms or germs are the cause of many diseases, there is little doubt that for these microorganisms to cause disease, the body must first succumb to the invation. In other words, the natural defenses of the body must lose the battle with the infectious body. This is much more likely to happen in individuals who are weakened due to poor health and poor nutrition, for example, or who live in conditions where they are more exposed to the pathogens. This explains the difference in infections and disease between more healthy and wealthy individuals in society and more unhealthy and poorer ones.

Modern medicine has developed a number of medications (Sp. medicamentos) and other methods to deal with infections by germs, such as:
  • antibiotics (1894) (Sp. antibióticos): noun/adjective formed in French (1889); the noun means ‘A substance which is capable of destroying or inhibiting the growth of bacteria or other micro-organisms; spec. one that is produced by another micro-organism (or is a synthetic analogue of a microbial product), and is used therapeutically’ (SOED). The word antibiotic was coined in French as antibiotique, derived from the Ancient Greek prefix ἀντι‑ (anti‑) ‘against’ and the adjective βιωτικός (biōtikós) ‘concerning or relating to life’, derived from the noun βίος (bíos) ‘life’.
  • antivirals (1929?) (Sp. antivirales): noun/adjective derived from an earlier antivirus (1903) to refer to ‘a substance which is active or effective against viruses’ (OED) (the word antivirus is used to day mostly as a noun used in computing for ‘software designed to detect and usually delete computer viruses’ (WNTIU).
  • antifungals (1945) or fungicides (Sp. fungicidas): antifungal is an adjective/noun, originally an adjective meaning ‘destroying fungi or inhibiting their growth’ (MWC); the noun fungicide was formed in English (1889) from fungus + ‑cide (fung‑i‑cide) (adj. fungicidal); Sp. fungicida (DRAE: 1970; cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.11.1)
  • antiprotozoals (Sp. antiprotozoarios): a recently created noun/adjective (still not found in most dictionaries) for ‘a medicinal drug used to fight diseases (like malaria) that are caused by protozoa’ (WN); Spanish has calqued this word as antiprotozoarios.
  • anthelmintics or antihelminthics (Sp. antihelmínticos): a late 17th century adjective for a medicine ‘used to destroy parasitic worms’ (COED), also used as a noun; it is a loanword from post-classical Latin anthelminthica (plural), used as noun of neuter plural of anthelminthicus or anthelminticus, a word formed from ant‑, a variant before h of the prefix ἀντι‑ (anti‑) ‘against’ and Ancient Greek ἕλμινθ-, combining form of ἕλμινς (hélmins; genitive: λμινθος hélminthos) ‘intestinal, parasitic worm’ (Sp. lombriz intestinal, gusano parásito); Sp. antihelmíntico: RAE, 1884 and earlier dictionary: 1853)

There are also different ways to prevent the germs from reaching us or cause infection in the first place, such as the use of aseptic surgical techniques, antiseptic substances, and the introduction of substances that help the body fight infection, such as vaccines (Sp. vacunas) and antibodies (also known as immunoglobulin; Sp. anticuerpos, inmunoglobulinas).

In this chapter, we are going to look at some of the vocabulary used to talk about infectious diseases in English and Spanish, comparing the two. We will find that there are many cognates among these words, but also some equivalent words that are not cognate, or even fully equivalent.

[1] The most lethal diseases are tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS, which kill around 5 million people a year (out of 300 million cases). Tuberculosis alone causes about 2 million deaths per year. The most common infectious disease is Hepatitis B, which has infected a quarter of the world population, but does not kill you right away (chronic infections can eventually cause cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer). The flu (influeza) kills 20,000 people in the US each year, though there are occasional flu epidemics that can be quite lethal, such as the so-called Spanish flu, which killed half a million people in the US in 1918. Malaria affects as many as 500 million people each year and kills between one and three million. Measles is still found in the developing world, despite the existence of a vaccine, and it kills as many as a quarter million people a year.

[2] The cognates Eng. miasma ~ Sp. miasma come ultimately from the Ancient Greek noun μίασμα (miasma) that primarily meant ‘pollution, defilement’. This noun is derived from the verb μιαίνω (miaíno) ‘stain, paint (in color); sully, pollute, contaminate, taint’. English miasma is first attested in 1665 and its French cognate, miasme, in 1695. Eng. miasma is a poetic/literary word that means literally ‘a highly unpleasant or unhealthy smell or vapor’ and, figuratively, ‘an oppressive or unpleasant atmosphere that surrounds or emanates from something’ (OAD). 

The Spanish cognate miasma (RAE: 1817) is defined as ‘evil effluvium that was believed to be given off by diseased bodies, corrupt materials, or stagnant water’ (DLE, original: ‘Efluvio maligno que, según se creía, desprendían cuerpos enfermos, materias corruptas o aguas estancadas’). Sp. miasma was originally a masculine noun, just like all loanwords from Greek words derived with the noun-forming suffix ‑ma, such as problema, but it is not uncommon to hear even educated people use miasma as feminine today. This word does not have a figurative sense and it is used mostly in the plural, as miasmas.

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