How a Virus Got Its Name

Rob Kyff on

As the current coronavirus disease spreads, several readers have asked me about the origin of its name.

"Coronavirus" is a general term for a wide range of viruses that cause respiratory tract infections. Under an electron microscope, the infective form of the virus has a fringe of bulbous protuberances resembling a crown ("corona" in Latin); hence, "coronavirus."

The current disease emerged during 2019, so it was dubbed "coronavirus disease 2019," often shortened to "COVID-19."

The origins of several other words associated with the current outbreak provide a reminder of the pervasive influence of Latin in English.

-- Virus: This term for a large class of submicroscopic infectious agents responsible for many diseases in animals and plants is a direct borrowing of the Latin "virus." In Latin, "virus" had a broad definition, referring to any venom or harmful emanation, ranging from poison to the sap of plants to slimy liquid.

"Virus" retained this general meaning when it entered English during the 1300s, but its definition narrowed during the early 1700s when it came to refer specifically to a substance causing an infectious disease.

-- Quarantine: Worried about the Black Plague, Italian port cities required the crews on ships entering their harbors to wait 40 days before disembarking to ensure the sailors showed no symptoms of the disease.

The Italian word for "forty" was "quaranta," so this period of isolation was a "quarantena," which entered English as "quarantine."


-- Inoculate: When you're being inoculated, it's hard to take your eye off the needle, and that's apt because "inoculate" derives from the Latin word for "eye."

The Romans thought the round buds on plants resembled eyes, so they used their word for eye ("oculus") to describe them. Thus, when the Romans discovered that a bud from one plant could be propagated by grafting it onto another plant, they used the verb "inoculare" for this process.

During the 1700s, when scientists developed the process of introducing a minute quantity of an infective agent to provide immunity to a disease, it reminded them of the process of grafting, so they called it an "inoculation."

-- Vaccine: At about the same time, doctors began inoculating people with small amounts of cow pox to prevent smallpox. Because the Latin word for cow was "vacca," they dubbed the bovine-derived substance a "vaccine," which soon became a general term for any substance that provides immunity to a disease.

And let's hope we find one for COVID-19 soon.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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