laws of planetary motion

TLL vol. X 1, 2309, 37–45

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.