Name that plague – or maybe not

The Monitor's language columnist calls the 'repositioning' of swine flu a vivid reminder of the power of names.

"They've given you a number and taken away your name."

That line, from the theme song of the old British spy show "Secret Agent" floated up into thought the other day as I considered the way "the swine flu" has become "the H1N1 virus."

H1N1: Four characters long, it will fit in the space of a single short word. On the other hand, it's four syllables long when spoken aloud. And like the digits of a telephone number, they're not an intrinsically recognizable whole. So when they are spoken aloud, they have to be "overpronounced," in the manner of telephone operators of yore.

Can you say "H1N1 virus" as fast as I can say "clinical detachment"?

This repositioning to a new term is a reminder of the power of names and of the power of political actors to influence not only the terms but the terminology of public discourse. It's also an example of how the pejorative use of a term can drive out the original literal meaning.

The World Health Organization announced April 30 that it would stop using the term "swine flu" in response to concerns from pig farmers, as well as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Health authorities say that whatever you call this thing, nobody gets it from eating pork. This hasn't, however, kept Egyptian authorities from seeking to destroy all the pigs in their country, estimated to number 300,000 or more, ostensibly as a precaution. The Egyptian pig farmers belong to their country's Christian minority and have rather less political clout than the National Pork Producers Council does in the United States.

The World Organization for Animal Health, in Paris, has suggested the term "North American influenza." Now that's a nice sweeping term that sounds likely to keep transatlantic tourists at home.

Both the Associated Press and the online news service have quoted Israel's Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, who is ultra-Orthodox, as urging the media to use the term "Mexican flu," in deference to Jewish sensitivities about pork.

This is over the top. But it's worth noting what a forceful pejorative swine is. Once the standard word for pig or hog, swine has been largely supplanted by these two terms. It lives on largely in the domain of insult terminology ("You swine, you!"). The pejorative use of the term crowds out the original literal meaning.

Gerry McGovern, a writer and consultant on Web content-management issues, has argued that authorities shouldn't be afraid of the term swine flu. After all, that's the term people are going to look for when they search online, he notes, and he has a point. A website that fails to use the real terms of a debate excludes itself from that debate.

On the other hand, I noticed a modest but definite calming of public thought as the final days of April trickled out into May. Top-of-the-hour radio news bulletins were no longer all flu, all the time, for one thing. For another, I noticed that when a certain newsweekly arrived in my mailbox that first Saturday in May with a cover illustration showing the "grim reaper," it looked a tad overwrought. Things had calmed down just that much since the decision was made on the cover art, evidently. I don't know whether the switch to "H1N1" was a contributing factor to, or just another one of the outcomes of, this calming.

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