Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cough Cough Oink Oink

I enjoy that amid the worldwide concern over swine flu, people are willing to find something idiotic to bicker about.

Though I’m sure other people disagree, I could care less that some people do not like the name swine flu. According to an April 28 an Agence France-Presse article, U.S. ag secretary Tom Vilsack objected to swine flu on grounds that it could mislead people into thinking that pork is unsafe to eat. My response is this: Mr. Vilsack, you have little room to comment on bad names, for yours is Vilsack. If rhymes, puns, songs and bawdy limericks didn’t plague you in your gradeschool days, then they certain did the moment you chose to run for an elected office.

Furthermore, maybe you should allow the people who are attempting to contain this disease to proceed as they see fit instead of hampering them, even for a moment, with the thought that they should make the effort to call it something other than what they’ve been calling it for the past few days. For example, I would say it would be a bad thing if an important document detailing how this problem could be solved were to be delayed from dissemination because the person who typed it has to do a CTRL+H to replace the offending instances of swine flu with H1N1. If those precious seconds mean the differences of lives — or, say, my life — then I say maybe skip that step.

I am alive and well at the moment, however, and I’m going to use these valuable seconds to wonder about the word swine and how it has come to earn its spot in the name swine flu. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from the Old English swin, “pig” or “hog,” which in turn comes from the Proto-Germanic swinan. That is to say that it doesn’t descend from Latin. In my experience, when diseases are associated with animals, they take the Latin-descended form of that animal’s name — Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, for example, commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. The Latin-descended term for pig is porcine, which I’ve mostly heard as describing people who exhibit piggy tendencies rather than referring to the oinkers themselves. Indeed, as much as I can recall, swine gets used in similar context as the other -ine words of the farmyard — equine, bovine, canine, feline, etc. — despite that porcine more closely resembles an English word associated with pigs than any of those others do any words associated with their respective animals.

I’m not anti-swine, of course — nor am I anti-swine, Mr. Vilsack — but I am nonetheless curious why porcine lost out. Could it have simply been that the Old English-descended swine happened to fit the pattern that its Latin-descended chums did by virtue of its three concluding letters? Swine certainly looks like it belongs there. It’s easier to spell, I guess. And one syllable is easier to say than two. Did porcine lose favor as a result of association with porcelain — which, as I’ve written about before, is related to the Latin word for pig but which has more pleasant, more delicate connotations than a wallowing pig? Google is not particularly helpful in answering this question.

Personally, I feel the name swine flu works well. It’s a great name for a disease, as a co-worker pointed out today. I agree. You hear flu by itself and you envision some fever-riddled sap on a couch, thermometer protruding from his mouth and one of those old-fashioned icepacks on his head. You hear swine flu, however, and you envision something filthier, something that revels in the collected waste of Old MacDonald’s entire menagerie. Even if you believe the theory that pigs’ association with unsanitary conditions is unfair, you still have to admit they’re creepy, what with their readily sunburning skin, their eerily understanding eyes and their overall appearance of some kind of malformed human. Really, what better animal to torment us two-leggers with their germs?


Note: If I die from swine flu, you’ll reread this one day and it will seem poignant.


  1. So, during the bird flu epidemic, did Vilsack complain that people would be afraid to eat birds?

  2. holly8:43 AM

    The name takes a huge toll on the industry. Its like when tomatoes were mis-implicated as the cause of the salmonella outbreak last year. The tomato producers lost out BIG time. It lead the FDA to revise their process and policy regarding how they implicate contaminated food, and also lead to stricter regulations on imported produce. I have an alternative suggestion for "swine flu," but its... very offensive. And therefore funny.

  3. Nathan: Can't remember, though I can imagine this was a problem.

    Holly: The suggested alternative is piggywiggy oink oink flu, right? I'm sure we all see why this is offensive.