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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #75 (article first published : 2006-12-23)

My last column talked about that dreadful word “wellness”, and health will serve to start us off this time. What with Bird Flu threatening, AIDS very much with us, and those old favourites tuberculosis and malaria making a strong bid for more recognition, we need to get the words right.

AIDS is generally referred to as a pandemic; malaria is often described as being endemic to an area or to a population. It begins to look as if there is some connection between the syllables “-demic” and disease of one kind or another.

But in fact it is not so. The word “demos”, taken unchanged from Greek, simply means “the people”. (According to Chambers, it is used “especially contemptuously”, implying the mob, The Great Unwashed, the hoi polloi.) There is a completely neutral adjective derived from it, “demotic”, meaning “popular, of the people”. If memory serves, the Greek language now spoken in Greece is referred to as demotic Greek, to distinguish it from the classical language of ancient times. I am led to believe that Greek schoolchildren start their education learning classical Greek before being allowed to use the rather simpler modern form of the language. I can’t vouch for that, but I remember that a Greek friend of mine at our English-medium school was required to take extra lessons in classical Greek after school, so it may well be true.

Let’s consider “endemic”. It’s derived from the Greek “endemios”, meaning “of a people or a district” Now we’re getting there. To say that malaria is endemic to the Congo Basin simply means that it is always to be found there, and the word could equally well be applied to plants or trees that are specific to that or any other area.

What about “epidemic”, then? The word it derives from means roughly “among the people”, but our word has a variety of meanings. As an adjective, it can mean “affecting a community at a certain time, prevalent”. Used as a noun, it means “a disease that attacks great numbers in one place at one place at one time, and itself travels from place to place.”

That brings us on to “pandemic”, in which the prefix “pan” means “all”. This of course means “affecting a whole people, epidemic over a wide area”. In the case of AIDS, the wide area is apparently the entire world, as we are becoming grimly aware.

And what of a plant, for example, that is not endemic to an area? What is it? It’s an “exotic”. Chambers again: “introduced from a foreign country, alien”. South Africa suffers from several such alien plants, for example the Port Jackson Willow, which I believe was imported from Australia to stabilize the sand dunes on the Cape Flats and has apparently set out to take over the entire country. We actually use the word “indigenous” – “native born” – more commonly than “exotic” describe non-alien plants.

“Exotic” has acquired some interesting additional meanings. Chambers: “foreign-looking; outlandish, romantically strange, rich and showy, or glamorous; relating to strip-tease or belly-dancing”. In other words, if you are vaguely ashamed of or titillated by something, blame it on the neighbours.

Another recent, and startling, contestant for naughty-but-nice honours is the word “decadent”. “Decadence” really means “a state of decay; a decline from a superior state, standard, or time”, and I find it almost incredible that it is now being used to express approval, as in “a thoroughly decadent box of chocolates/drink/ party etc.” There is even a shop in the rustic Natal Midlands called “Decadence”; it sells honest produce like jams and beadwork, and the choice of name simply defeats me.

On that note, and in high summer, surrounded by such decadent exotica as holly, Christmas trees, tinsel and artificial snow, I bid you farewell until next year. I hope this reaches its destination in time for me to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a happy and epidemic-free New Year.

Cheers! Ulysses Online.




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