This is the end of my fourth day sitting on my butt and watching Netflix (streaming through our new Roku box) while I battle with the flu. At least I think it’s the flu. It can be a bit hard to know whether a particular incidence of sickness is a cold or the real, honest to God flu. For the sake of today’s etymology, it doesn’t really matter, though.
“Flu,” coming from “influenza,” is an unusual shortened form of a word. We typically take either the first part or last part of the word, like lab for laboratory or plane for airplane. Few words take as their short form a middle syllable. Two others that I’ve found are fridge (refrigerator) and scrip (prescription).
Influenza is simply the Italian word “influence.” In this case, it originally referred to the belief that the stars affected illness. (This is at least as credible to me as the idea that the stars determine your personality or indicate whether it’s a good day to ask for a raise.) The word comes from Latin influere, meaning to flow in. People of that era believed that an ethereal liquid flowed from the stars and affected human destiny.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the use of this word for disease is documented in Italian since the early 16th century. It was a short hop to a meaning of “epidemic.” In 1743, an outbreak of influenza began in Italy and spread through Europe. It was at that time that English borrowed the word. The short form “flu” (at first spelled “flue”) has been used in English since at least 1839.
By this afternoon, I was feeling a bit better. I’m hoping that in no more than a day or two, the stars’ effect on me will have subsided so that I can be off the Barcalounger and back on my way. For more information and a pretty picture of the flu virus, see this San Francisco Examiner article.
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