That Goatnosed Feeling

Dear Word Detective: I recently came across the enclosed advertisement for a book called “How Not to Catch a Cold” in The New York Times Book Review. As you can see, the author feels quite strongly that the accepted derivation of the word “influenza” is wrong: “Influenza … is a corruption of the Arabic word ‘anfalanza.’ ‘Anf’ in Arabic means nose and ‘Al-anza’ means the goat. A coughing, drooling, nose-dripping goat is said to have ‘anfalanza.’ … The American Heritage Dictionary specifies the Latin ‘influentia’ meaning ‘influence’ as the origin of the word … that doesn’t make sense…. The goatnosed condition applies more firmly and believably.” What do you think? — K. Wollard, New York, NY.

Well, I think I’m not likely to buy this fellow’s book anytime soon — if his theories about colds are on a par with his theories about the word “influenza,” I’d probably be sneezing and sniffling until the turn of the century. I should note, by the way, that I’ve got a good head start already — as I type this I’m suffering from a doozie of a cold, so you might not want to get too close to the newspaper.

Our opinionated goat-fancier might find the “influence” derivation of “influenza” a bit more “believable” if he spent some time investigating why every major etymological authority finds it so convincing. “Influencia” in Medieval Latin meant more than “influence” — based on “fluere” (“to flow”), “influencia” was thought to be a fluid or emanation given off by certain stars that governed human affairs. Our modern word “disaster” comes from the same sort of ancient belief in the calamitous influence of evil (“dis”) stars (“astra”).

By the time the Latin “influencia” became the Italian word “influenza,” an “influenza” could be almost any kind of epidemic or plague blamed on the stars. Epidemics of a variety of diseases (scarlet fever, for instance) were referred to as “influenzas.” One particularly severe outbreak of the cold-like disease we now call “the flu” struck Italy in 1743 and spread throughout Europe. Known originally as “influenza di catarro” (“catarrh epidemic”), the illness came to be called simply “influenza,” as it has been ever since. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to pop out to the barn for a moment. I think I just heard a goat sneeze.

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