Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the Coronavirus to be a pandemic.

This is the first time that an outbreak has been characterized as a pandemic since the H1N1 “swine flu” of 2009.

But what exactly is a “pandemic”?

The term dates back to the 1660s when it meant “incident to a whole people or region”. Pandemic is derived from Latin pandemus, which comes from Greek pandemos, “pertaining to all people; public, common.”

Today, the word refers to a disease epidemic that has spread across a large area, usually across multiple continents, or worldwide.

A pandemic is different to an “outbreak” which is a sudden rise in cases of a disease in a particular place, while an “epidemic” is a large outbreak. A pandemic is a global epidemic.

There have been many infectious diseases that have reached pandemic status in history, including the Bubonic plague, smallpox, Spanish flu, HIV/AIDS, yellow fever, Ebola, swine flu, MERS, SARS, and now the related Coronavirus (COVID-19).

WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said of this declaration, “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”

Pandemic is a scary word but it just means that a disease is spreading widely. It has nothing to do with the severity of the disease.

For more information about the Coronavirus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

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