Sunday, May 13, 2018

Infectious diseases, Part 21: Staph Food Poisoning

[This entry comes from a section of Chapter 34, "Words about infectious diseases", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

As we saw when we discussed MRSA, Staphylococcus (Sp. estafilococo) is a genus of bacteria that colonize the skin, mucous membranes, and upper respiratory tracts of mammals and birds including, of course, humans. Most of the 40 species of this genus are harmless, but a few of them cause infections and some strands of those species have developed ways to counteract the body’s defense mechanisms and the antibiotics medicine has created to deal with them.

Staphylococcus aureus (Sp. estafilococo dorado), which we discussed in the section on MRSA, is the most dangerous of all the Staphylococcus species, responsible for most Staphylococcus infections, also known as staph infections, such as skin infections, pneumonia, food poisoning, toxic shock syndrome, and blood poisoning (bacteremia). Many healthy adults carry this bacterium in their biomes without adverse effects, however: 20% of us have it in in the skin and 30% in the nose. However, in certain contexts and under a weakened immune system, this bacteria is responsible for many different types of infections around the body, including localized skin infections, such as ear infections; diffuse skin infection, such as cellulitis; deep, localized infections, such as septic arthritis, and so on.

In addition, Staphylococcus aureus excretes substances that are toxic to the body, that is, toxins (Sp. toxinas). The New Latin noun toxin [ˈtɒk.sɪn] (Sp. toxina [t̪ok.ˈsi.na]) was created in 1886 from the stem tox‑ of the adjective toxic and the Latinate suffix ‑in. The adjective toxic (Sp. tóxico/a) comes from an actual Latin word, Late Latin toxĭcus ‘poisoned’, derived from the Latin noun toxĭcum ‘poison’, a loanword from Greek τοξικόν (toxikón) ‘poison for arrows’, from τοξικός (toxikós) ‘pertaining to bows’, from τόξον (tóxon) ‘bow’.

The main toxin produced by the S. aureus bacterium is known as Staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) or enterotoxin type B (Sp. enterotoxina estafilocócica B). This is the main toxin associated with food poisoning in humans. An enterotoxin is ‘a toxin produced in or affecting the intestines’ (COED). The word enterotoxin is New Latin word created in the 1930’s from Ancient Greek ἔντερον (énteron) ‘intestine’ and the word toxin. Food poisoning by SEB is known as Staphylococcal Food Poisoning or Staph Food Poisoning for short (Sp. intoxicación alimentaria por estafilococo dorado).

If one ingests a toxin such as SEB, that is, if one ingests food contaminated with it, it results in food poisoning, a form of gastrointestinal illness. The toxins can come from the skin, coughing, or sneezing of food handlers. The bacteria rapidly can grows rapidly at room temperature and excrete enterotoxins, especially in certain food products, such as cream, mayonnaise, meats, and dairy, which may not be easily detectable by smell or spoiled appearance, for instance. Staph bacteria are easily killed by cooking, but not so the toxins that they produce.

Those affected by food poisoning may experience vomiting, nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. The illness is not contagious typically does not last more than one day, though it depends on the dose. SEB can also non-menstrual toxic shock syndrome (TSS) in women (Sp. síndrome del choque tóxico no menstrual). This toxin has been considered for biological warfare since it is stable and can be easily aerosolized (sprayed) and since ‘it can cause systemic damage, multiorgan system failure, and even shock and death when inhaled at very high dosages’.[i]

As we have seen the equivalent of Eng. food poisoning in Spanish is intoxicación alimentaria. This points to a difference in meaning between the cognates Eng. intoxication [ɪn.ˌtɒk.sɪ.ˈkeɪ̯.ʃən] and Sp. intoxicación [in.t̪ok.si.ka.θi̯on], which are obviously derived from the cognate adjectives Eng. toxic ~ Sp. tóxico/a that we saw earlier. More specifically, these nouns are related to and derived from the cognate verbs Eng. intoxicate ~ Sp. intoxicar. They are loanwords from Medieval Latin intoxĭcāre, derived from the Latin adjective toxĭcus (fem. toxĭca), derived from the noun toxĭcum ‘poison in which arrows were dipped’, a loanword from Ancient Greek τοξικόν (toxikón) (see above).

The Classical Latin verb derived from this noun was toxĭcāre ‘to smear or anoint with poison’, but in Medieval Latin the prefix in‑ was added to this verb and from the verb, the noun intoxĭcātĭōnem (nominative intoxĭcātĭo) ‘poisoning’, was derived from the verb’s past participle stem. English and Spanish borrowed both the verb and the noun from Latin. In English, the verb intoxicate (borrowed from the passive participle form of the verb, intoxĭcātus) is attested by the middle of the 15th century and the noun intoxication is attested half a century later. The words show up in French at around the same time, so it is not clear if French had an influence on the appearance of the English words or, less likely, the other way round.[1] Spanish intoxicar and intoxicación are attested a little bit later, by the beginning of the 16th century.

The meaning of the English and Spanish verbs was originally ‘to poison’ and of the nouns ‘poisoning’, just like in the Medieval Latin source words. However, a change in the meaning of the English words rendered these cognates less than perfect friends. More specifically, by the late 16th century, the English verb intoxicate was being used with the meaning ‘to make drunk’ and by the mid-17th century we find the noun intoxication with the meaning ‘drunkenness’. Thus, in Modern English, the ‘poison’ meaning is archaic according to some dictionaries (e.g. COED) or obsolete according to others (e.g. OED). The main sense of Eng. intoxicate in English is, according to the OED, ‘to stupefy, render unconscious or delirious, to madden or deprive of the ordinary use of the senses or reason, with a drug or alcoholic liquor; to inebriate, make drunk’. More common than the verb is the adjective intoxicated derived (in English) from the verb’s past participle, equivalent to Sp. ebrio/a, borracho/a, embriagado/a.

Thus, English uses the noun poisoning in the context of food, not intoxication like Spanish and French do.[2] The noun poisoning [ˈpʰɔɪ̯z.ə.nɪŋ], derived from the verb to poison [ˈpʰɔɪ̯z.ən], means ‘illness caused by swallowing, touching, or breathing in a poisonous substance’ (DOCE). This verb, which appears in English around the year 1300, is derived, in English, from the noun poison, already attested a hundred years earlier. This noun was a loan from patrimonial Old French poison or puison (Modern French poison [pwa.ˈzɔ̃]), which meant ‘a drink’, in particular ‘a medical drink’, which by the 14th century also came to mean ‘(magic) potion, poisonous drink’. This word came from Lat. potĭōnem (nominative potĭo) ‘a drink’, but also in some contexts ‘a poisonous drink’. The noun is derived from potāre ‘to drink’ (cf. Eng. potable ~ Sp. potable ‘fit to drink’).

Obviously, the word potion [ˈpʰ̯ʃ.ən] in English is a doublet of the word poison, one that came directly from Latin, not through French. The Spanish cognate is poción, also a learned loanword from Latin, which is a good friend of Eng. potion, since they both mean ‘a liquid with healing, magical, or poisonous properties’ (COED). Spanish does have a patrimonial version of this word, and thus a doublet of poción, namely ponzoña (also attested as pozoña in Old Spanish), which is archaic in many dialects of Spanish. Its meaning is very similar to that of Eng. poison.[3]

However, the most common word for ‘poison’ in Spanish is veneno, which is a cognate of Eng. venom. These two words are partial friends since they share the sense ‘poison from an animal’, that is, ‘poisonous fluid secreted by animals such as snakes and scorpions and typically injected into prey or aggressors by biting or stinging’ (COED). However, Sp. veneno also has the sense ‘poison from chemicals or plants’. In other words, Sp. veneno is the generic term for ‘poison’ or ‘toxic substance’. These words come from Lat. vĕnēnum ‘potion, juice, drug’, in particular ‘a potion that destroys life, poison, venom (cf. toxicum)’ and ‘a magical potion, charm’ (L&S).[4] The more common form of the word in Old Spanish was venino. When English borrowed venom [ˈvɛn.əm] from Old French in the mid-13th century, it was spelled venim, since it came from Old French venim. All of this points to the existence of a Vulgar Latin version vĕnīnum of Classical Latin vĕnēnum from which the patrimonial French and Spanish words descend. This would mean that Spanish veneno is a semi-patrimonial word, namely a patrimonial descendant of a Latin word, but one whose form was altered at some point to make it look more like the original Classical Latin word.

This noun veneno eventually replaced ponzoña in most dialects for most purposes after the 16th century. Related to this noun is the adjective venenoso/a ‘poisonous’ (earlier veninoso/a) and the verb envenenar ‘to poison’ (earlier enveninar and aveninar). Cognates of Sp. veneno in other Romance languages include French venin, Galician veleno, Italian veleno, Sicilian vilenu, Occitan veren or verin, and Catalan veri.



[1] The noun intoxication is attested in French by 1408 (Modern French pronunciation [ɛ̃.tɔk.si.ka.ˈsjɔ̃]). The related verb entosiquier by the middle of the century (Modern French intoxiquer [ɛ̃.tɔk.si.ˈke]).

[2] The Spanish term intoxicación alimentaria, the equivalent of Eng. food poisoning, would seem to be a calque of Fr. intoxication alimentaire.

[3] The intrusive ‑n‑ in ponzoña is usually explained by the influence of the verb ponzoñar or emponzoñar ‘to poison’, which contain the intrusive n. These verbs are derived from Vulgar Latin *potioniare, in which the nasal consonant ‑n‑ presumably propagated itself to the preceding syllable, a rare sound change but one that is attested in other Old Spanish words as well.

[4] The word vĕnēnum descends from the Proto-Indo-European root *wenh₁‑ ‘to strive, wish, love’. Other Latin words that contain this PIE root are Vĕnus ‘Venus’, vĕnĭa ‘complaisance, indulgence, kindness, mercy, grace, favor’ (cf. Sp. venia ‘consent, permission, etc.’), vēnārī ‘hunt, chase, pursue’ (cf. Sp. venado ‘dear; venison’), venerārī ‘worship, adore, revere, venerate’ (cf. Sp. venerar ~ Eng. venerate). The English word wish also descends from a word that contained the same root (cf. Proto-Germanic *wunskijaną ‘to wish’).

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