Friday, May 1, 2009

What's in a Name?

In my very first job I worked with an older kid named Jughead. That’s what everyone called him – it was months before I learned his real name. He was a good-looking guy whose head in no way resembled a jug, so I finally asked him where the name came from. He explained that many years earlier he had attended a summer camp, where the boys he bunked with all gave each other nicknames ending with “head.” His was the only one that stuck. I asked him why only his had stuck and he grinned: “because none of the others could be said in front of the adults.”

Two lessons here. First, there are obviously worse things to be called than “Jughead.” And second, sometimes when a name had been conferred on someone or something it can be very hard to get rid of it.

The current flu outbreak is a case in point. The worst flu pandemic of modern times was the Spanish Flu of 1918. We now know definitively that it began not in Spain, but in Kansas, but it will forever be known as the Spanish Flu. The current flu has a number of names. Because there is a swine component to the virus (as well as avian and human components) it quickly picked up the name “Swine Flu.” This immediately led to a great deal of confusion about pigs carrying or causing the disease, along with rumors that it had first surfaced because of the practices of factory hog farming. Fear began to spread that one could contract the flu from consuming pork, which is completely untrue. Understandably, pork producers quickly howled in protest. The pigs themselves have not yet expressed an opinion on the matter.

Jews and Muslims, whose faith prohibits eating pork products, also were unhappy with the name. They suggested that it should be called The Mexican Flu, because Mexico was where it first surfaced. Mexico, which already has enough problems on its hands, bristled at the idea of having their country permanently stigmatized the way Spain was by the 1918 pandemic.

So if it is not Swine Flu and it is not Mexican Flu, what is it? According to the Center for Disease Control, it should be called by its proper name, which is H1N1. That is certainly a more accurate and scientific term, but I am guessing it is not likely to catch on. We like simple, everyday names for things. Plus when we are frightened of something, we sometimes need to joke about our fears, and pigs make for good jokes.

So everyone, wash your hands frequently and take sensible precautions to avoid catching this flu, whatever it is called. And also be careful about giving your kids or your friends nicknames – they might get stuck with them for the rest of their lives.


Truther said...

Whatever - we all know that Obama is a Secret Muslim(tm) and purposely infected us all so that we'd stop eating pork and therefore join his anti-christ revolution. I mean, duh.

rick in cos said...

In all liklihood, no more folks will die from this in the US than die from the "normal" influenze outbreaks every year. However, the good news is that it will capture the attention of the American (world?) public and perhaps, just perhaps, help better prepare us for the pandemic of Avian flu that will someday truly wipe out a lot of folks. Planning for the future through lessons learned will surely help us.