Monday, May 8, 2017

Infectious diseases, Part 1b: Synonyms of Eng. disease and Sp. enfermedad

[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.]

Synonyms of Eng. disease and Sp. enfermedad

Synonyms of Eng. disease

Eng. disease has two main synonyms, sickness and illness, which are not exactly identical, though they are often used interchangeably. All three words translate into Spanish as enfermedad, however.


The word disease is the most objective of the three and thus the one typically used in medicine. It can be defined as ‘a pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from various causes, such as infection, genetic defect, or environmental stress, and characterized by an identifiable group of signs or symptoms’ (AHD). The word illness, on the other hand, refers to what can be the same thing but from a patient’s perspective. Note that a person may have a disease without feeling ill, and vice versa. Another difference in usage between disease and illness is that the word disease is used preferably for cases that are more life threatening or that require serious treatment.

The noun illness [ˈɪɫ.nəs] is derived from the adjective ill [ˈɪɫ], whose main meaning is ‘not in full health; unwell’ (COED), by adding the native, English (Germanic) suffix ‑ness that attaches itself to adjectives and creates nouns ‘denoting a state or condition’ (COED), e.g. deafness (< deaf), eagerness (< eager), etc. (The equivalent Latinate suffix in English is ‑(i)ty, e.g. stupidity, liberty, a cognate of Sp. ‑(i)dad.) The adjective and noun ill, first attested around 1200, is actually a loan from Old Norse and it originally meant something closer to ‘evil’ (‘morally evil; wicked, iniquitous, depraved, vicious, immoral, blameworthy, reprehensible’, said of persons and of actions, OED).[1] And when the noun illness was first attested around the year 1500, it meant ‘bad moral quality, condition, or character; wickedness, depravity; evil conduct; badness’ (OED), a meaning that is now obsolete.

Also sporting the suffix ‑ness, is the noun sickness [ˈsɪk.nəs], which derives from a native English adjective sick [ˈsɪk]. The same dictionary defines illness as ‘poor health resulting from disease of body or mind; sickness’, as well as ‘a disease’, and sickness as ‘the condition of being sick; illness’, as well as ‘a particular type of illness or disease’. As we can see, the two definitions are rather circular. The noun sickness is attested as early as the 10th century in English with pretty much its current meaning. As for the the adjective/noun sick, it is already attested in the 9th century, spelled séoc in Old English, and ultimately from Proto-Germanic *seukaz ‘sick’.

The word ill is used today primarily as a predicative adjective, equivalent to sick, as in to be ill, or as an adverb, equivalent to ‘in an ill manner, badly’ (OED), as in to speak ill. It is also found as a modifier (attributive) in set phrases such as ill health and ill temper, but notice that ill cannot always be used attributively and thus we do not say *an ill person, meaning ‘a sick person’. The sense ‘bad’ of ill can be also be seen in compounds such as ill-advised and when used as a noun, as in social ills and to speak ill. On the other hand, sick can be used as a predicative adjective, as in to be sick, or else as an attributive adjective, as in a sick person.

Just like there are adjectives associated with the nouns illness and sickness, there is also an adjective associated with the noun disease, namely diseased [dɪ.'zizd], which means ‘suffering from a disease’ (CALD). In this case, the adjective (diseased) is derived from the noun and not the other way around as in the other two cases. This adjective is derived from the past participle of the now obsolete Middle English verb disesen, borrowed in the 14th century from Old French desaaisier ‘to deprive of ease, make uneasy’. The adjective diseased is first attested in the middle of the 15th century. Whereas the adjectives ill and sick are typically used to refer to diseased individuals, the adjective diseased is rarely used to refer to a person. It is more often used to refer to an animal, as in a diseased cow, or to body parts, as in diseased liver.[2] Also, the adjective diseased has a much stronger sense and it sounds more serious than the adjectives ill and sick do.

Other terms that are synonymous with disease in some contexts are the following:
  • ailment (Sp. mal, achaque, dolencia, enfermedad): ‘An illness, disease, or disorder, usually a mild one; a minor complaint affecting part of the body’ (OED); a word created in the early 18th century from the native verb ail and the Latinate suffix ‑ment[3] It is not surprising that, for emphasis, the word ailment is often found modified by the adjective minor, as in minor ailment (cf. Sp. dolencia menor)
  • malady (Sp. mal, enfermedad, etc.): a literary word that means ‘any disorder or disease of the body, esp. one that is chronic or deep-seated’ (RHWU); it is more commonly used today figuratively: ‘any undesirable or disordered condition: social maladies; a malady of the spirit’ (RHWU); < 13th century Old French maladie < malade ‘sick’ < Latin male ‘ill’ + habitus ‘having (as a condition)’
  • disorder (Sp. dolencia, enfermedad, etc.; (of mind) trastorno): in medicine, ‘a disruption of normal physical or mental functions: a skin disorder’ (also mental disorder, cf. Sp. demencia, trastorno mental, enfermedad mental); in the late 15th century, under the influence of the noun order, this word replaced mid-14th century French loan disordeine (cognate of Sp. desorden), a noun derived from the verb desordainer < Med. Lat. disordinare ‘throw into disorder’ (cf. desordenar); note that Sp. desorden does not have the medical sense of Eng. disorder, though it has the other major sense: ‘a lack of order; a confused or untidy state’ (COED)
  • affliction (Sp. mal, dolencia, achaque): ‘something that causes pain or suffering, especially a medical condition’ (DOCE). A c. 1300 loan from Old French affliction, itself an 11th century loan from Latin afflictĭōnem (nominative afflictĭo) ‘pain, suffering, torment’, derived from the verb afflīgĕre ‘to throw down; damage, injure; etc.’ (cf. Eng. afflict ~ Sp. afligir); the Spanish cognate aflicción is a false friend since it means ‘grief, sorrow, woe, woefulness’
  • indisposition (Sp. indisposición): a formal word, first attested in the mid-15th century, that in medicine means ‘a minor ailment’ (AHD); the other, perhaps primary sense of this word is ‘disinclination; unwillingness’ (AHD); it is related to the archaic verb indispose ‘make unfit for or averse to something’ (no Spanish cognate) and to dispose (cf. Sp. disponer); the related adjective is indisposed (cf. Sp. indispuesto), whose main meaning is medical, ‘mildly ill, slightly unwell’, and the secondary meaning is not, ‘averse, disinclined, unwilling’, cf. Eng. I am indisposed = Sp. Estoy indispuesto/a; actually, the verb indispose and the noun indisposition were probably a back-formations (in English) from indisposed, which was probably a c. 1400 calque of Late Latin indispŏsĭtus ‘without order, confused’ (cf. patrimonial Sp. indispuesto/a), negative form of dispŏsĭtus ‘disposed, distributed, arranged’, passive participle of dispōnĕre ‘dispose, distribute, arrange’ (cf. Sp. disponer), derived from pōnĕre ‘to place, put, lay’ (cf. Sp. poner)
  • morbidity (Sp. enfermedad, etc.): this word was created in the 18th century in English from the adjective morbid, which in medicine means ‘relating to or caused by a disease’ (DOCE; the other, and primary meaning of morbid is ‘characterized by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease’, COED, cf. Sp. morbo); morbidity can mean ‘a morbid state or quality’, i.e. ‘illness’, as well as ‘the proportion of sickness or of a specific disease in a geographical locality’ (RHWU; cf. Sp. morbilidad, a calque of Eng. morbidity); Eng. morbid is a mid-17th century loan from Lat. morbidus ‘diseased’ < morbus ‘sickness, disease; etc.’, containing the same root as the verb morī ‘to die’ (cf. Sp. morir), cf. Sp. mórbido/a, which in medicine means ‘morbid’, and elsewhere also ‘gruesome’ and, in literary language, ‘soft, delicate’

Synonyms of Sp. enfermedad

Spanish does not have serious (competing) synonyms for the noun enfermedad and we find that this noun is typically the best way to translate all three English nouns: disease, sickness, and illness. However, the synonym ailment does not typically translate as enfermedad, but rather as dolencia, achaque, or even mal. The latter can be used as a synonym of enfermedad in some contexts.

Sp. dolencia ‘ailment, complaint, illness’ used to be a synonym of enfermedad in Old Spanish, which was the preferred word in earlier times. It can still be used as a synonym, though dolencia today sounds less serious than enfermedad. This noun is derived from the Spanish verb doler ‘to hurt’ and the related noun dolor ‘pain’, and thus it involves the idea of something that hurts, a connection that is obvious to any Spanish speaker using the word dolencia. The noun dolencia also often entails a prolonged or chronic ailment rather than a passing illness.

The Spanish words dolencia, doler, and dolor all go back to a Latin verb dŏlĕre (principal parts: dŏlĕo, dŏlĕre, dŏlŭi, dŏlĭtum), most basically meaning ‘to hurt’. This verb could be used for physical pain, meaning ‘to feel pain, suffer pain, be in pain, to ache’, but also for mental pain, meaning ‘to grieve for, deplore, lament, be sorry for, be afflicted at or on account of any thing’ (L&S). This verb is the source of patrimonial Sp. doler ‘to hurt’, a verb used like gustar. As for the noun dolor, it comes from Latin dŏlōrem, accusative of dŏlor also having a physical sense and a mental sense, i.e. ‘pain’ and ‘grief’.[4] Another related word is the noun duelo, from Late Latin and Vulgar Latin dŏlus ‘pain, grief’, which now means ‘ grief, affliction’, ‘mourning’, ‘wake’, and ‘cortege, funeral procession’.[5] Another related word is the verb adolecer (de) ‘to suffer (from)’, as in Mi madre adolece del corazón ‘My mother has a heart condition’, though it is used mostly figuratively, as in Adolece de confiado e inocente ‘His faults are overconfidence and naivete’ (GDLEL).

The noun achaque also means something like ‘ailment’ and it contains the idea that it is a chronic one, albeit not a major or fatal one. It is often found in the phrase achaques de la vejez ‘old-age ailments’. According to the DLE this noun is derived from the Spanish verb achacar ‘to impute, attribute, accuse’, a 13th century borrowing from a variant of Arabic شكا (šakā) ‘to complain’. Presumably the noun achaque is just a noun derived from the verb achacar, as many other nouns with the ‑e inflection are derived from the stems of verbs, such as cortar ~ corte ‘cut’, empujar ~ empuje ‘push’, and so on. Note, however, that the verb achacar has nothing to do with health issues. Corominas thinks that the Spanish noun achaque does not come from this verb, but rather from an Arabic noun related to the Arabic verb we just saw, transliterated šakâ, that meant ‘complaint’, but also ‘body ailment, habitual illness’. It is not too hard to see how the sense ‘ailment’ might have been derived from the sense ‘complaint’, cf. Eng. health complaint.

Finally, the Spanish noun mal can also mean ‘sickness’, in addition to ‘evil’, depending on the context, in a way that is reminiscent of the uses of the word ill in English through time. Thus, in luchar contra el mal ‘to fight against evil’, the word mal has the latter meaning and in tener mal de estómago ‘to have a stomach ache/illness’ or in tener muchos males ‘to have lots of ailments’, it has the former one. Note that although in these examples mal is used as a noun, Sp. mal is primarily an adverb that means ‘bad(ly)’ or ‘ill/evil’ (in the adverbial sense, seen above), as in cantar mal ‘to sing badly’ or hablar mal el inglés ‘to speak English poorly’, or hablar mal de alguien ‘to speak ill of somebody’. In certain contexts, however, adverbial mal translates as sick, as for example in encontrarse mal ‘to feel sick’.

[1] This ‘evil’ sense of the word ill can still be gleaned in the expressions speak ill or think ill of somebody, which mean ‘to say or think bad things about somebody’ (OALD).

[2] Spanish speakers have a hard time distinguishing between the adjectives diseased [dɪ.'zizd] and deceased [dɪ.ˈsist] ‘someone who has died, especially recently’ (DOCE). That is because the two words only differ in the sounds [s] ~ [z], which are not distinguished in Spanish (in this phonetic environment).

[3] Eng. ail ‘(archaic) to feel ill or have pain’, ‘to cause physical or mental pain or uneasiness to; trouble’ (AHD). Interestingly, this verb is only used with non-definite subjects like what or nothing, as in What ails you? or Nothing ails me. You cannot say, for example, My head ails me.

[4] Note that the English word pain can also be used with a physical and a mental senses. This word is a late 13th century loanword from Old French peine, paine, peinne, or pene, also having both senses. These words are cognate with Sp. pena, a false friend that means ‘sentence, punishment’, ‘hardship, trouble, difficulty’, as well as ‘grief, sorrow’, and, derived from this latter sense, ‘embarrassment’ and ‘pity’ in some dialects.

[5] Note that there is a second Spanish word duelo, cognate with Eng. duel, with the same meaning. These words have a different source, for they are both learned borrowings from Medieval Latin duellum ‘fight between two men’, a word derived from Old Latin duellum, source of Latin bellum ‘war’. The ‘fight between two men’ sense no doubt came from a similarity with the Latin numeral dŭŏ ‘two’ (no connection).

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