Contagious metaphors: from Typhoid Mary to quarantine
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the final quarantine of Mary Mallon, better known as ‘Typhoid Mary’, who was the first recognized asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. An Irish-born cook in the New York City metropolitan area, Mallon caused several outbreaks of typhoid in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While several dozen infections and a handful of deaths are ascribed to her, some historians think the number may have been much higher.
Language, by analogy, can work similarly to an epidemic like typhoid. Words and phrases often spread rapidly, jumping from one speaker (‘carrier’) to another, and can eventually even mutate from the literal sense into a figurative one. Starting with the media’s nickname for Mary Mallon, we trace the relationship between literal and figurative senses of several terms.
You’re more likely to have heard of Typhoid Mary than Mary Mallon. While Mallon’s story faded into the background, the nickname she earned for her infamous spreading of the disease entered the language. According to research in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it wasn’t long before Typhoid Mary became a way to refer to any carrier of typhoid – or, more broadly, a carrier (whether person or animal, or even plant) spreading an infectious disease or infestation.
In modern usage, though, Typhoid Mary often refers to something that is ‘a transmitter of undesirable opinions, sentiments, or attitudes’. The OED entry has citations for this figurative sense of the term as early as 1913, which means that before Mallon had even been placed into permanent quarantine, you could read statements like: ‘The Declaration of Independence, in respect of spreading the germs of revolution, is the Typhoid Mary of Spanish America’, from Miles Dobson’s 1914 book At the Edge of the Pit.
During the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, another term that rose into popular usage was patient zero. Typically, this term is not necessarily freighted with the negative connotation of Typhoid Mary, which sometimes carries some sense of intention or malice. Instead, patient zero is used to refer to the ‘person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases’.
While patient zero has not yet acquired the figurative heft of Typhoid Mary, it is certainly well on its way. Several months ago, Monica Lewinsky spoke about how after the media revelations of her affair with former President Bill Clinton she was ‘patient zero’ of cyberbullying, one of the first people subject to widespread shaming on the Internet.
A word that played a prominent role in the history of Typhoid Mary, quarantine has a fascinating history. The word started as a reference to the place in which Jesus fasted for forty days (from the post-classical Latin quarentena). In the 14th century, the word had come to refer to a different forty-day period – that in which a widow entitled to a dower should be assigned her dower, along with the right to remain in her deceased husband’s home. Eventually, it referred broadly to any forty-day period.
The turning point for quarantine came when it began to refer to the period of time imposed upon newly-arrived travelers, with the idea of preventing the spread of disease. This idea of forced isolation quickly became figurative, and has been invoked as a synonym for blockade in speeches by US presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, among many others.
Epidemic and pandemic
Although both epidemic and pandemic both have their roots in ancient Greek, the words took quite different routes to reach English. Epidemic comes from the French word épidémique (noun: épidémie), via late Latin from the Greek epidēmia ‘prevalence of disease’, which ultimately comes from epidēmios (epi ‘upon’ + dēmos ‘the people’). When you refer to something as an ‘epidemic’, you refer to ‘a sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular undesirable phenomenon’, typically an infectious disease.
On the other hand, pandemic is much clearer-cut. From the Greek word pandēmos (from pan ‘all’ + dēmos ‘people’), pandemic refers to a disease that is ‘prevalent over a whole country or the world’.