Sunday, May 21, 2017

Infectious diseases, Part 3: The common cold

[This entry comes from a section of Chapter 32 ("Words about infectious diseases") of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]


What is known in English as the common cold, or a cold, is ‘an acute [not chronic] disease of the upper respiratory tract that is marked by inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, eyes, and eustachian tubes and by a watery then purulent discharge and is caused by any of several viruses (as a rhinovirus or an adenovirus)’ (MWC). There are more than 200 strains of viruses involved in the common cold, with rhinoviruses being most common.

Symptoms typically associated with colds include ‘a cough [50% of the time], a runny nose, nasal congestion, and a sore throat [40% of the time], sometimes accompanied by muscle ache [50% of the time], fatigue, headache, and loss of appetite’ (WP). Of all these symptoms, the most common ones are a runny nose and/or nasal congestion, with the other ones being present at most half of the time. Interestingly, it used to be thought that this discharge came from the brain.

The common cold goes by a number of different names in Spanish: catarro, resfriado, resfrío, and constipado. These names are all found in Standard Spanish, in the sense that speakers familiar with Standard Spanish are familiar with all of them. However, one of these words is typically preferred over the others in a particular country or dialect. Also, whereas English just has a noun to refer to this sickness and does not have an adjective to refer to those affected by it, Spanish has four nouns and three adjectives.

English noun
Spanish noun
Spanish adjective

Eng. cold

The noun cold was derived from the (native) adjective cold (‘having low temperature’) as early as 1300. The original meaning of the noun cold was primarily the one the noun coldness has nowadays, namely ‘a low temperature’, ‘cold weather’, or ‘a cold environment’ (COED).[1] Note that Spanish frío can also be both an adjective and a noun, equivalent to Eng. cold and coldness, respectively (the two come from different, albeit related, words in Latin).[2] Although this is not the main sense of the noun cold nowadays, that sense is still found in expressions such as to go out into the cold.[3]

The name cold for the sickness that we are discussing dates back to the 16th century. The reason for the name seems to be either that catching a cold is associated with cold weather conditions or else that the symptoms of a cold resemble those of exposure to coldness, such as runny nose. As early as 14th century, however, the noun cold had already acquired the sense of ‘indisposition or discomfort due exposure to cold’, from which the current name of the sickness developed.

The noun cold (with the illness sense) is used with the basic verbs have, catch, get, give, or take. The adjective common is often added to the noun cold when referring to this sickness so as to avoid the ambiguity of this noun.

In English, sometimes a distinction is made between a “head cold” and a “crying cold”. A head cold, or a cold in the head, refers to one that is ‘mainly confined to the nose and pharynx’ (OED), whereas a crying cold is one that is ‘accompanied with running at the eyes’ (OED). The former term, head cold, is much more common than the latter, though neither one of them is particularly common nowadays.

Sp. resfrío and Sp. resfriado

Let us turn now to the multiple names for the common cold in Spanish. Two of them, namely resfriado and resfrío, contain the root fri‑, meaning ‘cold’, as found in the adjective/noun frío (frí-o, where the ‑o is the inflectional ending). These two words for the meaning ‘cold’ are attested since the 17th century and the 18th century, respectively.





The noun resfriado is first attested in the 17th century. It is derived from the past participle of the verb resfriar, which is first attested in the late 15th century. In other words, from the verb resfri-ar we get the noun resfri-ad-o by removing the ‑ar inflectional ending of the verb and adding the derivational suffix ‑ad‑ and the inflectional suffix ‑o. This noun was originally a past participle (e.g. Me he resfriado), which then became an adjective (e.g. Estoy resfriado), and eventually a noun (e.g. Tengo un resfriado).

The verb resfriar was formed by adding the prefix re‑, which mostly means ‘again’ but which is also used to give an intensive meaning, to a now obsolete verb esfriar ‘to cool, cool down, chill’ (re+esfriarresfriar). This obsolete verb comes from Late Latin exfrigidare, a verb derived from the Latin adjective frīgĭdus (fem. frīgĭda; stem: frīgĭd‑), the source of the Spanish adjective frío (not of the noun frío).[4] The (non-reflexive) verb resfriar is now rare. It means ‘to cool (down)’ when speaking of the weather, as in Está empezando a resfriar ‘It’s starting to get cold’.[5] The verb is most commonly used as a reflexive (pronominal) verb, that is, as resfriarse, which means ‘to catch (a) cold’, e.g. Me resfrié por llevar poca ropa ‘I caught a cold for not wearing enough clothes’.

The noun resfriado for ‘a cold’ is derived from the identical past participle of the verb resfriar. Actually, the noun is derived from an adjective that is derived from the past participle. The adjective resfriado/a means ‘having a cold’, as in Estoy resfriado ‘I have a cold’. But the masculine form of this adjective has been converted into a noun, as in Tengo un resfriado, which is another way to express the same meaning.

The noun resfrío is also derived from the verb, but by conversion, without any derivational affixes this time, just a substitution of the inflectional verbal ending ‑ar with the inflectional noun ending ‑o (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.7.1). Thus, resfri-ar > resfrí‑o. The noun resfrío is the least common of all the nouns for the meaning ‘common cold’, being common only in Argentina. This is also the only noun that does not have a homonymous adjective to go along with it.

Sp. catarro

Another Spanish word for ‘cold’ is catarro, a noun that comes from Medieval Latin catarrus, which comes from Late Latin catarrhus, which was a loanword from Ancient Greek κατάρροος (katárrhoos) ‘catarrh, head cold’, from καταρρέω (katarrhéō) ‘to flow down’, from κατά (katá) ‘down’ plus έω (rhéō) ‘to flow’. The name obviously refers to the nasal discharge associated with colds. Sp. catarro is a learned word, one that first appears in writing in the mid-15th century.

From the noun catarro (catarr-o), Spanish has developed the verb acatarrarse ‘to catch (a) cold’, a synonym of resfriarse or coger un catarro/resfriado (a-catarr-ar-se). From the past participle of this verb, acatarrado, Spanish has then developed the adjective acatarrado/a, which means ‘having a cold’, a synonym of Sp. resfriado (as in María está acatarrada).

There is another Spanish word derived from the noun catarro, namely the much less-common adjective catarroso/a. Said of a person, this adjective means ‘that has a cold’, as in Juan está catarroso, or ‘that has a propensity to catching colds’, as in Juan es muy catarroso. This adjective is formed with the adjectival suffix ‑os‑ (catarr-os-o/a).

Sp. constipado

Finally, the last name for the common cold in Spanish is constipado, as in María tiene un constipado. This noun is derived from an identical adjective constipado/a, as in María está constipada, which is derived from an identical past participle of the verb constiparse ‘to catch a cold’ (as in María se ha constipado). This verb is a loanword from Lat. cōnstīpāre ‘to crowd or press closely together’ (Sp. ‘apretar, atiborrar’).[6] This Latin verb is the source of the English verb constipate, and thus of the participle and, most common, adjective constipated.

Eng. constipate comes from Lat. cōnstīpātum, the passive participle of the verb cōnstīpāre, which makes this verb a cognate of Sp. constipar(se) since cōnstīpātum and cōnstīpāre are two wordforms of the same word. When Eng. constipated was borrowed from Latin in the 18th century, it had the meaning it had in Latin, ‘pressed close together, condensed’ (OED). That meaning is now obsolete, however. The current meaning developed as a euphemism for the condition of having ‘difficult or incomplete or infrequent evacuation of the bowels’ (WN).

Sp. constipado/a, and the verb constipar it comes from, are also 18th century loanwords from Latin and their current meanings are also an extension of the original one. Note that although the meanings of the English and the Spanish words are different, they can both be traced back to the meaning the original word had in Latin by a process of specialization (cf. Part I, Chapter 1, §1.3.2). Note also that although the verbs constipar and constipate are cognates, i.e. they descend from the same exact word, the adjectives Sp. constipado and Eng. constipated are not since they have endings that are not cognate, although they are analogous, namely ‑ed and ‑ado. We say that words that contain the same root are cognate, but not cognates (the word cognate is here used as an adjective, cf. Part I, Chapter 1).

Although Sp. constipado/a was originally an adjective, its masculine form has also been ‘converted’ into a noun, constipado, which means ‘a common cold’. Thus, one can say Estoy constipado/a (adjective) or Tengo un constipado (noun). Both sentences translate as I have a cold.

Other names for a cold in English

Considering that Spanish has four names for this condition, along with four related adjectives to refer to a person with the condition, it is interesting that a language as lexically prolific as English only has one word for it, namely the noun cold. There are some additional technical terms for the common cold in English, such as acute viral nasopharyngitis, nasopharyngitis, viral rhinitis, and rhinopharyngitis, which are all New Latin medical terms.

We neglected to mention earlier that English also borrowed the Latin word catarrhus as catarrh, pronounced /kə.ˈtɑɹ/, way back in the 14th century. One dictionary defines catarrh as ‘excessive discharge of mucus in the nose or throat’ (COED). However, this word is quite rare in English today, unlike its Spanish counterpart (at least in some dialects), though dictionaries do not say that it is obsolete or even archaic. This word was probably never in widespread use.

There is an additional word found in most dictionaries to refer to the common cold or, at least, to the most common of its symptoms, even though the vast majority of English speakers have never heard of it. The word is coryza, pronounced /kɒ.ˈɹaɪ̯.zə/. One dictionary defines it as ‘catarrhal inflammation of the mucous membrane in the nose, as caused by a cold’ (COED). The word is a term borrowed from Latin in the 17th century which comes from Latin corȳza, from Ancient Greek κόρυζα (kóruza) ‘running at the nose, nasal mucus’.

[1] The English adjective cold is a native word (not borrowed). It comes from the Old Germanic verb-stem kal‑ ‘to be cold’, which is cognate of the Latin root gel‑, since both go back to the Proto-Indo-European root *gel‑ ‘cold’. The Latin root gel‑ is found in the Latin noun gelū ‘frost, chill’, the source of the patrimonial Spanish noun hielo ‘ice’, and the adjective gelidus ‘ice cold, icy, etc.’, the source of the learned Spanish adjective gélido/a. It is also the root found in the Latinate English words gel, gelatin, jelly, congeal, gelid, glacial, glaciate, glacier, and gelato (the word gelato was borrowed in the 1970s from Italian gelato, lit. ‘frozen’, a cognate of Sp. helado, which as an adjective means ‘frozen’ but as a noun means ‘ice-cream’). Another native English word that descends from the same root is chill, which comes from Proto-Germanic *kaliz ‘coldness’.

[2] In El café está frío ‘The coffee is cold’ or La sopa está fría ‘The soup is cold’, frío/a is an adjective. The opposite would be (the adjective) caliente. In Tengo frío ‘I am cold’, No salí por el frío ‘I didn’t go out because of the cold (weather)’, or El frío es lo peor de vivir aquí ‘The coldness is the worst thing about living here’, frío is a noun. The opposite would be (the noun) calor. Although the adjective frío and the noun frío look identical in Spanish, they have different sources. The adjective frīgidus (see below) became frío in Spanish (and frīgida became fría). The noun frío, on the other hand, has a different source, namely the Latin noun frīgus ‘cold(ness)’ (gen. frīgoris, regular stem: frīgor‑).

[3] Note that the adjectives warm and hot cannot be used as nouns (the associated nouns are warmth and heat). Curiously, in Spanish too frío can be either an (masculine) adjective or a noun. The same is not true of the adjective caliente, which corresponds to the noun calor.

[4] The Late Latin verb exfrigidare became esfraier or effraier in Old French, esfreidar in Provençal, and esfriar in Portuguese. The Latin adjective frīgĭdus/a which is the source of Sp. frío/a, is derived from the verb frīgēre ‘to be cold’, whose root frīg is also the root of the Latin noun frīgus (accusative: frīgus; genitive: frīgoris; regular stem: frīgor‑) ‘cold, coldness’, which is the source of the Spanish noun frío.

[5] A more general verb for the meaning ‘to get cold’, one that does not just refer to the weather, is the patrimonial verb enfriar. As a transitive (non-reflexive) verb it means ‘to make cold, chill, cool down’ and as an intransitive reflexive verb it means ‘to get cold, to be chilled, cool down’. Its source is Lat. īnfrīgidāre ‘to chill, cool’, formed from the prefix in‑ and the same .

[6] Sp. constipado can be a noun, as in Tengo un constipado ‘I have a cold’, and an adjective, as in Estoy constipado (fem. Estoy constipada), with the same meaning.

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