Thursday, May 25, 2017

Infectious diseases, Part 5: Shingles

[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.]


In Chapter 3 of Part II, §3.4.3, we saw the Latin noun cingulum, which is the same in both nominative and accusative cases and which meant ‘girdle which encircles the hips; zone, belt; sword-belt; sash’. This noun is derived from the root cĭng‑ of the verb cĭngĕre (cĭng‑ĕ‑re > cĭng‑ŭl‑um), a verb that meant ‘to surround, encircle; to gird on’. We saw that a patrimonial descendant of cĭngŭlum in Spanish is cincho, a word that is rare nowadays and that means ‘belt’ or ‘hoop’.

In English, we saw that there is a word cingulum which is a New Latin medical term in English that has different meanings depending on the context. In anatomy, refers to ‘a curved bundle of nerve fibers in the brain’ (Sp. giro cingulado). In dentistry, cingulum refers to ‘a ridge of enamel on the crown of a tooth’ (COED).

A variant of Lat. cĭngŭlum in Medieval Latin, namely cĭngŭlus, is the source of the English word shingles in English for a disease that results in ‘an acute painful inflammation of nerve endings, with a skin eruption often forming a girdle around the body, caused by the varicella zoster virus’ (COED). The word is first attested in the late 14th century. Because it became a common word its phonetic shape (sound) and its spelling changed much more than if it had remained a learned word of the books. The Medieval Latin word cĭngŭlus that Eng. shingles comes from was a translation or a calque of the Gk. ζωστήρ‎ (zōstḗr), which meant ‘girdle’ and ‘waist-belt for men’ and which was used as the name for the disease in Greek. As we shall se, the word zoster is the technical name of the virus in both English and Spanish.

Figure 116: Images of two cases of shingles, on one side of the torso and on one side of the face[i]

Some words related to this disease

As we saw, shingles results in a skin eruption (Sp. erupción cutánea) which is consists of a painful skin rash (Sp. sarpullido, erupción cutánea) with blisters (Sp. ampolla). Let us look at the origin of some of these words. Let us start with the word rash /ˈɹæʃ/ in English, a word that refers primarily to ‘an area of redness and spots on the skin’ (COED). The word is presumably (but not for sure) a loanword from Old French rache or rasche ‘scurf, eruptive sores’ (cf. It. raschia ‘itch’). It first appears in English in the early 18th century. The final source of this word is thought to be the Vulgar Latin verb *rasicare ‘to scrape’, which is the source of Sp. rascar ‘to scrape, scratch’. This Vulgar Latin verb is derived from Lat. rāsus ‘scraped’, passive participle of the verb rādĕre ‘to scrape, scratch, etc.’.[1] Thus, interestingly, Eng. rash and Sp. rascar are cognate words since they share the same root.

Next, let us look at the Spanish noun ampolla ‘blister’. It comes from Lat. ampŭlla, which meant ‘bottle, jar, flask for holding liquids, traditionally with two handles’. There are two theories about the origin of this word. One is that it contains the prefix ambi- ‘both, on both sides’ (from the Latin determiner ambō ‘both’) plus olla ‘pot, jar’, cf. Sp. olla ‘pot’. Another theory is that it is an irregular diminutive of the word amphora, ‘a large oblong vessel for liquids, with a handle on each side’, a loanword from Gk. ἀμφορεύς (amphoreús), a shortened form of from ἀµϕιϕορεύς ‘vased shaped ornament with a narrow neck’, from ἀμφί (amphí) ‘(on) both (sides)’ and  ϕορεύς ‘bearer, carrier’, from the verb ϕέρειν ‘to bear’.

The word ampolla can also mean ‘small bottle’ in Spanish, as well as ‘ampoule, vial’. In this last sense, we just saw a cognate of this word in English, namely ampoule, a French loan for ‘a small glass vial that is sealed after filling and used chiefly as a container for a hypodermic injection solution’ (AHD). In English, there is also a word ampulla, borrowed directly from Latin, for ‘a Roman two-handed round vessel used for wine, oil, or perfume’. This word also translates into Spanish as ampolla. The word ampulla is also used in various scientific, anatomical contexts in English to refer to ‘a dilated segment in a tubular structure’ or ‘the dilated end of a duct’. These senses also translate as ampolla in Spanish. There are cognates of this word in other languages. Thus, Catalan ampolla means bottle’ and Italian ampulla can mean ‘cruet’, ‘ampulla’, or ‘bulb’ (such as a light bulb).

The cognates Eng. eruption ~ Sp. erupción are learned loanwords from Latin. Besides meaning ‘the act of erupting’, as in a volcano, this noun can also mean in both languages ‘the breaking out of a rash on the skin or mucous membrane’ (MWC). These words come from the Latin noun ēruptiō ‘eruption, outburst, onrush’ derived from the passive participle stem ērupt‑ of the verb ērŭmpĕre ‘to break out, burst out, rush out’ formed from the prefix ex‑ ‘out’ and the verb rŭmpĕre ‘to break, burst’, the source of patrimonial Sp. romper ‘to break’ (cf. Chapter 37, §37.3).

As for the Spanish word sarpullido for a skin rash, it is derived from an earlier, attested word sarpullo, which some think goes back to Late Latin serpusculus ‘crawling rash’, a noun derived from the verb serpĕre ‘to creep, crawl’. Another theory is that it goes back to Latin serpullum ‘thyme, wild-thyme’, a loanword from Gk. ἑρπυλλον (hérpullon), with the initial h replaced by s under the influence of the verb serpĕre ‘to creep, crawl’.[2] By the way, some think that the word serpusculus is the source of the very popular Portuguese dish sarrabulho or serrabulho made with coagulated pig’s blood, chicken, pork, ham, sausage, and other ingredients.

More about shingles

The eruptions in this disease can occur on either side of the body, but they never go fully around the body as a belt does, which is what the name implies. The eruptions can happen in the head, the neck, or any part of the torso. Very often they take place around (half of) the chest, which is why the disease was given this name. The eruptions are accompanied by intense pain and itching, though the pain may appear days before the eruptions.

The medical name of the disease commonly known as shingles is herpes zoster (HZ), after the name of the virus, varicella zoster virus (VZV) (Sp. virus varicela-zóster, or VVZ), one of the nine herpes viruses that infect humans (cf. §32.3.16 above). This is the same virus that resides in nerve cells and causes chickenpox, also known as varicella in English (Sp. varicela; cf. §32.3.56 below). When a person has chickenpox, usually as a child, and recovers from it, the virus does not go away but rather remains dormant in the nerve cells of the spinal cord. If at a later time the virus reawakens, it travels along the nerves that go from the spinal cord around both sides of the body, causing shingles. In other words, one must have had chickenpox in order to have shingles at a later time.

The reawakening of the VZV in adults is due to a lowering of the immunity to this virus due to of aging or immunosuppression. Children do not get chickenpox as much nowadays as in earlier times because there has been a vaccine available since the 1980s and, as a result, adults are not re-exposed to the virus in the environment as much as they were in the past, something which allowed the immunities to be strengthened as they aged. This is thought to account for the higher prevalence of shingles nowadays.

Unlike chickenpox, shingles is not contagious unless there is direct contact with the liquid inside the shingles pustules. (Chickenpox is very contagious through the air.) If that were to happen, the infected person would get chickenpox, not shingles, assuming they did not have the immunity. Chickenpox is not a serious disease in children, but it can be more serious in adults since adults are more likely than children to die or to have serious complications from this infection.

The varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox may lie dormant for many decades before reappearing to cause shingles. Older people, who have a weaker immune system, are more likely to get it. Stress, which also depresses one’s immune system, is also associated with the appearance of shingles. Also, the older one is, the more severe the aftermath of the disease, which may result in postherpetic neuralgia (PHN, Sp. neuralgia posherpética), damage of the nerves, which may take months or years to be repaired.

In Spanish, nowadays the disease is known primarily by its technical name, namely herpes zóster. An earlier, popular name for it was culebrilla, a word that is a diminutive form of the noun culebra ‘snake’ (< V.Lat. colọ́bra < Lat. cŏlŭbra, same meaning). Obviously, the source of this name has something in common to the name herpes which, was we saw earlier, comes from a word that means ‘to crawl’.

Shingles affects approximately one million individuals in the US each year. Of those, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent develop postherpetic neuralgia. The older a person is, the more likely they will develop postherpetic neuralgia. Less than 10% of those under 60 do, whereas about 40% of those over 60 do. That is why it is recommended that people over 60 take the shingles vaccine, available since 2006. The vaccine is not perfect, however. According to the CDC, it reduces the chances of getting shingles by half and of getting postherpetic neuralgia by two thirds.

The other words shingle in English

We should mention that the word shingles is not related to the noun shingle (pl. shingles) that means ‘a rectangular wooden tile used on walls or roofs’ (COED) (Sp. tablilla or teja plana). This noun is thought to come from Late Latin scindula, a variant of Lat. scandula, a diminutive meaning ‘roof-tile, shingle’ and derived from the Latin verb scandĕre ‘to climb, ascend, mount; clamber’. Its passive participle form was scānsum. This verb has not made it into Spanish or English, but several derived ones have, resulting in a number of cognates that are actually semi-false friends (or semi-friends):
  • Eng. ascend /ə.ˈsɛnd/ ~ Sp. ascender /as.θen.ˈd̪eɾ/, from Lat. ascendĕre ‘to go up to, climb up to’, from ad ‘to’ and scandĕre ‘to climb’; nouns derived from this verb are the semi-friends Eng. ascent ‘subida, ascension, ascenso’ ~ Sp. ascenso ‘rise, ascent, promotion’
  • Eng. descend /dɪ.ˈsɛnd/ ~ Sp. descender /d̪es.θen.ˈd̪eɾ/, from Lat. dēscendĕre ‘to come down, etc.’, from dē‑ ‘down’ and scandĕre ‘to climb’; nouns derived from this verb are the semi-friends Eng. descent ‘descenso, bajada; ascendencia; etc’ ~ Sp. descenso ‘fall, drop; descent, etc.’
  • Eng. transcend /tɹæn.'sɛnd/ ‘ir más allá de, superar’ ~ Sp. trascender /tɾas.θen.ˈd̪eɾ/ ‘to become known, spread, etc.’, from Lat. transcendĕre ‘to climb over, step over, surpass, transcend’, from trans ‘over’ and scandĕre ‘to climb’; there are no nouns associated with this verb nowadays in English or Spanish, though a noun *transcent was used in the early 17th century with the meaning ‘the act of passing over or crossing’ (OED)

Other English words that go back to words derived from the verb scandĕre are scale (the noun that means ‘ladder’ for instance, not its homonym that means ‘weighing instrument’), and the derived verb to scale that means ‘to climb’, as well as the noun escalator. In Spanish, we find escala ‘ladder’, escalar ‘to climb, scale’, and escalera, which means ‘ladder’ as well as ‘staircase’. The derived noun escalón means ‘step, stair; rung; (mil.) echelon’. Eng. echelon is a cognate of Sp. escalón and it is recent (late 18th century) loanword from from French echelon ‘level, echelon’, from Old French eschelon, a word derived from eschiele ‘ladder’.

It seems that the original word scandula was changed to scindula under the mistaken thought that the word was related to the verb scindĕre ‘to split up; to cleave’, which has given us Sp. escindir ‘to split, divide’ and the derived noun escisión ‘split, division’ (< Lat. scissiōn‑), as well as the derived verbs such as Eng. rescind ~ Sp. rescindir. Although we did not mention that the verb escindir has a cognate in English, it seems that it does. The verb scind has been used in English before, but of all the common dictionaries, it is only mentioned in the OED, which mentions that it is rare, but not archaic or obsolete. By the way, Lat. scindĕre is cognate with Gk. σχίζω ‎(skhízō), a verb whose root is found in New Latin words such as Eng. squizophrenic ~ Sp. esquizofrénico.

We should finally note that there is a second word shingle in English (in addition to the word shingles), a homonym of the word we just saw. This word shingle is not as common as the other one and it means ‘mass of small rounded pebbles, especially on a seashore’ (COED). The origin of this word is not known, but it is not related to the other two words.

[1] The same word rash has a extended sense as well, namely ‘an unwelcome series of things happening within a short space of time: a rash of strikes’ (COED). This sense is first attested in the 19th century. Although this figurative sense of rash can be translated into Spanish sometimes as racha (e.g. una racha de huelgas ‘a rash of strikes’), experts do not think there is any connection between these two words. The Spanish word is thought to come from Arabic رَيَّا (rayyā) ‘agitation, jolt, shock’. By the way, there is a homonymous adjective of the English noun rash, which means ‘acting or done without careful consideration’ (COED), as in a rash decision (cf. Sp. imprudente, precipitado/a). This is an unrelated, native, Germanic word.

[2] There are two other words used in Spanish that in some contexts are equivalent to Eng. rash. One is escocedura, which is used particularly to refer to diaper rash. It comes from the verb escocer ‘to sting, smart’ and comes from Lat. excoquĕre ‘to boil, etc.’ Another word for rash in Spanish is urticaria, but that is mostly equivalent to Eng. urticaria, which is popularly known as hives. This is ‘A skin condition characterized by intensely itching welts and caused by an allergic reaction to internal or external agents, an infection, or a nervous condition’. Another word for hives/urticaria is nettle rash.

[i] Source: Copyright © 2009 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; retrieved from (2017.05.26)

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