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May 22, 2020  |  Friday words #221  |  211 hit(s)

When there are attention-getting events like COVID/Covid/covid, it's natural that technical vocabulary leaks into popular media. For example, a friend of mine asked me why it's the novel coronavirus, and the best explanation I had was that the "novel" appellation was used by virologists and epidemiologists and had made its way (probably unnecessarily) into news stories.[1]

In this vein, while reading an article in the New Yorker recently, I ran across the word nosocomial. Granted, they were using quotation marks and explaining the term, so they weren't trying to sneak it past us or anything. But still, when have we previously seen this term? Outside specialty literature, I mean.

Nosocomial refers to an illness that's spread in a hospital; "hospital-acquired." I could not guess from looking at nosocomial what it could mean. It's ultimately Greek; the constituent parts are noso, meaning "illness," and kom, meaning "care."

As with many infections, putting a lot of people into proximity[2] has the unfortunate tendency to make it easy for the infection to spread. Thus the nosocomial coronavirus, which has had high incidence in places like nursing homes and, yes, hospitals.

Hospitals are a particularly insidious vector because the healthcare professionals treating patients in one hospital can easily spread it to another one. This means that the concept of nosocomial spread is related to iatrogenic, meaning you got sick from a doctor. I am reminded of a book I read not long ago, The Butchering Art, about Joseph Lister's efforts to introduce antisepsis to medical procedures in Victorian times. In those days, one place you definitely did not want to be treated was in a hospital.

Update: I asked my wife, who's in healthcare, if she knew nosocomial. "Oh, yeah," she said.

For origins this week the word soldier. It doesn't appear to have obvious cognates that suggest where we got it from. So off we go to the dictionary.

Not surprisingly, the -ier ending tells us that it's from French. The sol- part is the interesting bit: it's a historical word that used to refer to a type of French money or coin. It goes back to the name of a Roman coin, the solidus, whose name is indeed related to the word solid. You want people to soldier for you, you'd better pay them with some solid money.

The French sol does have a modern descendant, namely the French sou. I guess that the sou is not in use anymore, but it does retain a metaphorical sense of "a coin or thing of very little value," sort of like the British use of farthing (?).

Anyway, a soldier is essentially someone who's paid for military duty. Not to be confused with a mercenary, who gets paid to soldier for other people, which is to say, whose loyalty is to the sol, not to the person/country/entity that's paying it.

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[1] Decades of technical writing have hammered into me the value of using the vocabulary of your audience.

[2] I would have written "close proximity," but that would earn me an editorial spanking: pleaonasm.