Coronavirus – what the heck does it mean?

Today we have a guest post by Manish Sharma

We have all heard this word a lot lately and some of us are probably getting quite sick of it. Hopefully, not by it though. Have you wondered what does it actually mean though?

Let’s do an etymological analysis of coronavirus and see what we come up with. Do what? I hear you say! Fret not, it’s just a fancy way of saying what the word means and how it came to be.

Well, let’s see what we have here then.

So we know it’s clearly made up of two words: corona + virus. Well done, Sherlock! Is that it? What are you going to tell us next? That it’s caused by drinking too much Corona beer? Sadly, no, because there would have been a rather easy cure for it if that was true!

Beer (excuse the pun) with me though while I break it down for you.

Corona comes from the Latin word corōna, meaning a ‘crown’ or ‘garland’, which in turn is borrowed from the Greek word κορώνη (korṓnē), which means a ‘garland’ or a ‘wreath’ [source]. I guess something to do with the similarities in shape. It’s used to describe this class of viruses because of their peculiar structure, as we have all seen in the photos everywhere, the virus looks like a spherical ball with spike-like projections on its surface giving it an appearance of a crown. Not unlike the way solar flares project from the surface of the sun hence called solar corona.


The Greek word κορώνη (korṓnē) has its origin in a Proto Indo-European or PIE (a hypothesised common ancestor of most of the Indian and European languages) word *ker or *sker which is the origin of the Sanskrit word कृत्त (kṛttá) or the Hindi word कट (kat), both meaning to ‘cut’ something. Incidentally, English words like, curtailed, shears, scissors, short, skirt and share have all descended from this same root [source].

A note on the relation between the words *ker and *sker before we move on. The prefix ‘s’ (s-mobile) sometimes occurs in the variations of the same word in different languages. For instance, the English word snake and Hindi word नाग (nāg) also share a common root – the Proto-Indo-European *sneg- (to crawl, a creeping thing) [source].

The word virus comes from the Latin word vīrus meaning poison, venom or slime. Same indeed as the Greek word ἰός (iós – poison, venom), which itself has descended from the PIE word *wisós (fluidity, slime, poison). Anybody who knows the Hindi or Sanskrit translation of the word poison or venom would have probably figured out where this is going. The Hindi word विष (viṣ – poison, venom) and the Sanskrit विष (viṣá – poison, venom), come from the same root as the word virus [source]. Fascinating, eh?

When you put the two together, you get coronavirus, or poison cut in the shape of a crown!

So, there you have it. We may not know for sure where this wretched virus came from but at least we now have an idea how its name came about.

Hope you enjoyed reading.

Slimy Islands

For various reasons, I thought I would investigate a few disease-related words to find out where they come from.

Let’s start with virus, which comes from the Latin vīrus (poison, slime, venom), from the Proto-Italic *weisos, from Proto-Indo-European *wisós (fluidity, slime, poison). Virus used to mean venom as well, apparently [source].

Disease comes from the Anglo-Norman desese / disaise, from the Old French desaise (disease, deformity, melancholy), from des- (apart, reversal, removal) and aise (ease – lack of anxiety) [source].

In Middle English words for disease included adle, which comes from the Old English ādl (disease, sickness); and co(a)the, from the Old English coþu (disease). The latter continued to be used in some English dialects as coath (sickness, disease, pestilence) [source]

Pandemic comes from the Ancient Greek πάνδημος (pándēmos – of/belonging to all the people, public) and -ic (of/pertaining to) [source].

Epidemic comes from the French épidémique (epidemic), from the Latin epidemia (epidemic), from Ancient Greek ἐπιδήμιος (epidḗmios), from ἐπί (epí – upon) and δῆμος (dêmos – people) [source].

Isolation comes from the French isolation, from isolé (isolated, placed on an island) [source].

Hope you’re okay and coping with self-isolation, or whatever restrictions are in force / suggested where you are.

Forest Picnics

An interesting Danish word I learnt this week is skovtur, which means a picnic or outing, according to, or a “picnic (social gathering), not necessarily in a forest”, according to Wiktionary.

Grundlovs skovtur 2012

Wiktionary mentions a forest because this word is a portmanteau of skov (forest, woods), and tur (turn, trip, journey, walk, move, tour, stroll, outing). So it could be poetically translated at “forest trip/outing”. This gives me the idea that picnics in Denmark often take place in forests, or at least did in the past. Is this true? Er det sandt?

The word skov comes from the Old Norse skógr (wood, forest), from the Proto-Germanic *skōgaz (forest, wood), which is also the root of the word scaw / skaw (promontry) in some English dialects. The name of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike (formerly Scawfell), includes it, for example.

The word tur comes from the French tour (to go, turn), from the Old French tor (tower), from the Latin turris, turrem (tower), from the Ancient Greek τύρρις (túrrhis – tower), possibly from the Proto-Indo-European *tauro (mountain, hill, tall structure).

The word picnic is also used in Danish. It comes, via English, from the French pique-nique, from piquer (to pick) and nique (small thing) [source].

Do other languages have interesting words for picnics?

Outlaws and Brigands

Here are a few words that might be relevant today, if you happen to be in the UK:

Election – the choice of a leader or representative by popular vote, comes from the Anglo-Norman eleccioun, from the Latin ēlectiō (choice, option), from ēligō (I pluck out, I choose).

Vote – a formalized choice on matters of administration or other democratic activities, comes from the Latin vōtum (prayer, votive offering, wish, longing), from voveō (to vow, promise solemnity, dedicate, wish), from Proto-Indo-European *h₁wegʷʰ- (to promise, vow, praise).

Ballot – originally, a small ball placed in a container to cast a vote; now, a piece of paper or card used for this purpose, or some other means used to signify a vote. It comes from Italian ballotta (ballot, shot, ball, boiled chestnut), a diminutive of balla (bale, bundle).

Poll – a collection of votes, from the Middle English pol(le) (scalp, pate), probably from the Middle Dutch pol / pōle / polle (top, summit; head), from Proto-Germanic *pullaz (round object, head, top), from Proto-Indo-European *bolno-, *bōwl- (orb, round object, bubble), from *bew- (to blow, swell). The meaning of a “collection of votes” was first recorded in 1625, and came from the notion of counting heads.

Labour – comes from the Middle English labouren, from Old French laborer (to work, labour), from Latin laborare (to labor, strive, exert oneself, suffer), from labor (labor, toil, work, exertion).

Liberal – comes from Old French liberal (appropriate for a free person, generous, giving), from the Latin līberālis (befitting a freeman), from līber (free).

Conservative – comes from the Middle French conservatif (conservative), from Latin cōnservō (to preserve, conserve), from con- (with) and servō (to save, rescue, preserve, retain, watch).

Tory – comes from the Middle Irish tóraidhe, (outlaw, robber or brigand), from tóir (pursuit) [More details].

Source: Wiktionary.

Buoys & Oxen

What is the connection between buoys and oxen?


Well, the word buoy comes from the Middle Dutch boeye (float, buoy), from the Old French buie (fetter, chain), probably from Frankish *baukan (sign, signal), the root of the English word beacon, or from the Latin boia (a (leather) collar, band, fetter), from the Ancient Greek βόεος (bóeos – of ox-hide), from βοῦς (boûs – ox), from the Proto-Indo-European *gʷow- (cow) [source].

Traditional Ox & cart

How do you pronounce buoy, by the way?

I pronounce it [ˈbɔɪ], as in boy, but I understand that some pronounce it [ˈbuːiː] or [ˈbui], like bwee.

Elephants & Camels

Elephants and camels

What do elephants and camels have in common?

Well, words for camel in Slavic languages like Czech and Russian possibly come from an Ancient Greek word meaning elephant.

In Czech the word for camel is velbloud [ˈvɛlblou̯t], which comes from the Proto-Slavic *velьb(l)ǫdъ / vъlьb(l)ǫdъ (camel), from the Gothic 𐌿𐌻𐌱𐌰𐌽𐌳𐌿𐍃 (ulbandus – camel), from the Latin elephantus (elephant), from the Ancient Greek ἐλέφας (eléphas – elephant) [source].

Words from camel in other Slavic languages come from the same root: верблюд (verbljúd) in Russian and Ukrainian, вярблюд (vjarbljúd) in Belarusian, wielbłąd in Polish, and so on [source].

These all come from the Gothic 𐌿𐌻𐌱𐌰𐌽𐌳𐌿𐍃 (ulbandus), but from there the etmological trial gets a bit hazy, as they quite often do. Traditionally this word is thought to derive from the Greek ἐλέφας, via the Latin elephantus.

Another theory is that the Gothic word comes from the Proto-Germanic *elpanduz (elephant, camel), which possibly comes from the Hittite word hu(wa)lpant (humpback), or from another ancient language of Anatolian such as Luwian [source].

The word for elephant in Czech (and also in Slovak, Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian) is slon [slon], which comes from the Proto-Slavic *slonъ (elephant) [source], which comes either from the Turkish aslan (lion), or from *sloniti (to lean against), relating to the medieval story of an elephant sleeping leaning on a tree [source].

So now we know where the name of the lion in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe probably comes from.

Aprosdoketons & Malaphors

I came across quite an interesting word on Twitter the other day – aprosdoketon [ˌæp.ɹəsˈdɑ.kɪˌtɑn], which is defined as “a figure of speech in which an expected word in an idiom is replaced with an unexpected one – e.g. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a teacup'”.

According to Wiktionary, it can also refer to “any surprising use or interpretation of language”, and comes from the Ancient Greek ἀπροσδόκητος (aprosdókētos – unexpected).

Theres a collection of unintentional blended idioms and phrases on the Malaphors blog – it seems that malaphor is another name for this blending of metaphors, idioms and other sayings. It was apparently coined by Lawrence Harrison in the Washington Post in 1976 [source].

So remember not to count your chickens before they’ve crossed the road, and there’s no point in closing the stable door after leading a gift horse to water. Make sure to get all your ducks in one basket, and don’t let the pig out of the poke.

Look before you leap from the frying pan to the fire, or you might find yourself in deep custard without a paddle. It’s not rocket surgery! In fact it’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake.

The early bird in the hand catches two worms in the can, unless it’s barking up the wrong end of the stick.

I’m sure you can come up with many more examples of aprosdoketons / malaphors.

Dilemmas and Trilemmas

A dilemma is “a situation necessitating a choice between two equal, esp. equally undesirable, alternatives”, or “a problem that seems incapable of a solution” [source].

It comes, via Late Latin, from the Ancient Greek δίλημμα (dílēmma, – ambiguous proposition), from δι- (di-, having two of) and λῆμμα (lêmma, – premise, proposition) [source].

Today I spotted the word trilemma in an article in The Spectator. I hadn’t seen it before, but from the context it appears to be a variant of dilemma involving three choices.

According to Wiktionary, a trilemma is “A circumstance in which a choice must be made between three options that seem equally undesirable” or “put another way, in which a choice must be made among three desirable options, only two of which are possible at the same time.”

I thought trilemma was a recently-coined word, but according to Wikpedia, it was first used in writing back in 1672.



Do you suffer from matutolypea?

If you do, then you are in a bad mood and easily annoyed, especially in the morning, or ill-humoured and downright obnoxious first thing in the morning [source].

An example of how to use it: “The secret is not to talk to him at all until he’s been awake for at least an hour. Wait till the matutolypea subsides.” [source]

Matutolypea comes from the Latin Mātūta, the Roman goddess of morning or dawn [source] (pictured above), and the Greek λῠ́πη – lúpē (sadness, suffering, affliction) [source], so could also be translated as “dawn saddness”.

I learnt this word from an episode of the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple.

Those you suffer from matutolypea might be said to have got up on the wrong side of the bed or woken on the wrong side of the bed. According to a superstition that dates back to the Romans, the wrong side of the bed is the left side, as the left is associated with bad luck and is decidely sinister in Latin. The Roman emperor Augustus Caeser apparently always got up on the right side of bed beacuse of this superstition [source].

According to the Grammar Monster, “an ancient superstition that evil spirits lay on a certain side of the bed. A person who wakes up and gets out the “wrong” side of the bed disturbs the evil spirits and attracts their wrath, putting the person in a foul mood.”

Even though I get up on the left side of my bed every morning, as the right side is against a wall, I rarely suffer from matutolypea.

Are there any words, phrases or sayings in other languages about being miserable in the morning?

Polyglot Cruise

Costa Pacifica

On 18th April 2020 the good ship Costa Pacifica will set sail from Barcelona with 100 polyglots on board. They will be taking part in the first Polyglot Cruise, which is organized by Kris Broholm of the Actual Fluency Podcast.

The cruise is open to anybody interested in languages, whether you consider yourself a polyglot or not. During the week-long event there will be presentations, discussions and workshops every day, and plenty of time to enjoy the ameneties of the ship, and to explore the places it visits, including Palma (Mallorca), La Valetta (Malta), Catania and Genoa (Italy).

For a shared cabin it costs US$897 (about €788 / £704) for the week, which includes participation in the polyglot activities, accommodation, meals, entertainment, and use of other facilities on the ship. It’s more if you want a single cabin, or a travelling as a couple or family.

This may sound like a lot, but I think it’s worth it, and I signed up yesterday. I’ll giving a short presentation on the old Mediterranean Lingua Franca (Sabir), a pidgin that was used by sailors and others around the Mediterranean from about the 11th century to the 19th century. It was based particuarly on Venetian, Genoese, Catalan and Occitan, and also contained words from French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Berber.

If you book within the next 5 days, you can enjoy early bird prices, and if you use the offer code OMNIGLOT, you can get a further US$50 discount.

More details of the cruise.

If this doesn’t appeal, maybe you’ll be interested in other polyglot events.

Note: as an affiliate, I will get a small commission if you register via a link in this post, or on my events page.