Say, Goddess, what causes, after so many centuries, brought forth among us this strange affliction. Did it reach our hemisphere, carried from the Western sea, after a select group of men set sail from Spain, braving the open waves and the unknown waters of changeful Ocean, as they searched for lands that lay in another world? For it is said that in those parts this pestilence reigns in every city with unending affliction, that it wanders abroad because of a perpetual flaw in the climate, sparing few people. Should we then believe that it was commerce that brought the disease to us, that, small at first, it gradually gained force and sustenance, spreading itself to every land? As when a spark happens to fall upon some dried twigs from a torch that a shepherd has forgotten in a field: at first it is little and appears to be biding its time; presently, as it gathers strength, it rises up and victoriously lays waste the harvest and the fields and the neighboring woods, tossing flames up to heaven. Far off some distant thicket, sacred to Jove, begins to roar, and for miles around the sky and the fields are aflame.Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis (trans. J. Gardner), 1530
I’ve written a brief reflection for Commonweal on the philological landscape of infectious disease, focusing on how the ancient Latin word planeta could denote both a planet in the sky and an illness in the body:
Derived from the verb “to wander,” the original Greek noun πλάνης was applied to more than just Mars and Saturn—in Euripides’s Bacchae, to take just one example, it refers to a “vagabond” who comes to town. Among the physicians of the ancient world, including Hippocrates himself, πλάνης could also mean “fever,” a pestilence that migrates from person to person. The Romans, of course, had their own words for disease—morbus, pestis—but they adopted this astronomical language in their own medical writings too, using the Latin cognate. In one account, planeta refers to a fever with an “unrestrained onset.” In another, planetae are those illnesses that obey neither finite duration nor predictable prognosis.
If we’re surprised by this strange metaphorical pairing, I imagine that future lexicographers “will marvel at the state of language in 2020, when ‘virality’ could simultaneously denote ironic meme culture and a global medical panic.” A tweet, after all, is not a plague, just as Saturn is not a fever.
Head over to Commonweal to read the rest.
For example, the problem of false news. How does so much of it get into the American newspapers, even the good ones? Is it because journalists, as a class, are habitual liars, and prefer what is not true to what is true? I don’t think it is. Rather, it is because journalists are, in the main, extremely stupid, sentimental, and credulous fellows—because nothing is easier than to fool them—because the majority of them lack the sharp intelligence that the proper discharge of their duties demands. The New York Times did not print all its famous blather and balderdash about Russia because the Hon. Mr. Ochs desired to deceive his customers, or because his slaves were in the pay of Russian reactionaries, but simply and solely because his slaves, facing the elemental professional problem of distinguishing between true and false, turned out to be incompetent. All around the borders of Russia sat propagandists hired to fool them. In many cases, I have no doubt, they detected that purpose, and foiled it; we only know what they printed, not what they threw into their wastebaskets. But in many other cases they succumbed easily, and even ridiculously, and the result was the vast mass of puerile rubbish that Mr. Lippmann later made a show of. In other words, the editors of the American newspaper most brilliantly distinguished above its fellows for its news-gathering enterprise turned out to be unequal to a job of news-gathering presenting special but surely not insuperable difficulties. It was not an ethical failure, but a purely technical failure.H. L. Mencken, “Journalism in America,” Prejudices: Sixth Series (1927)