Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

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Word Mystery: cold / catarro / rhume

Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.

DOWNTON ABBEY returned to British screens this past Sunday, reminding me that I hadn’t yet addressed the Spanish flu. “Wait, what?” you’re probably saying.

In a 2011 episode of the second season of the popular ITV show, now in its fourth year, several characters contract the Spanish flu and one conveniently dies of it. Once I got over how incredibly dumb and poorly plotted the show had become, I was pissed at how everyone was so casually blaming all these dumb contrivances on the Spanish, when they had nothing to do with the flu (except dying of it, like everyone else).

The reason the 1918 H1N1 flu, which killed between 3 and 5% of the world’s population, was known as “Spanish” was because the most press coverage about the epidemic came from Spain…but not because there was more flu there than elsewhere. It was because the rest of Western civilization was busy fighting in a war and wartime censoring precluded the journalists from reporting anything bad that was happening on the home front. I guess they thought that if everyone was busy with their victory gardens, no one would notice that all their neighbors were dropping dead.

Unless you believe in the coming zombie apocalypse, the chances of you catching such a deadly virus are slim. But the chances of you getting sick in the coming months are high because non-lethal flu season is nigh.

To the WordMystery Machine!

EN → cold — a common viral infection in which the mucous membrane of the nose and throat becomes inflamed, typically causing running at the nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and other similar symptoms. ORIGIN related to Dutch koud and German kalt.

ES → catarroInflamación aguda o crónica de las membranas mucosas, con aumento de la secreción habitual de moco. [Acute or chronic inflammation of the mucus membranes, with an increase in secretion of mucus.] ORIGIN Latin catarrhus [flow, leak].

FR → rhumeInflammation des muqueuses des voies respiratoires, rarement accompagnée de fièvre ou de faiblesse. [Inflammation of the mucus membranes, occasionally accompanied by fever or weakness.] ORIGIN Latin rheuma [flux, flow].

Weird that Spanish and French both come from Latin words meaning “flow” but not the same one. It’s like another Word Mystery incepted this one! Just for that, I’m giving the win to English for being awesome and not knowing whether its antecedent is Dutch or German. (I suggest a paternity test.)

Girl, you know it’s true

DOWNTON is a terrible program (programme). Part of the cultural conversation surrounding television in recent years has been about the division between character driven shows and plot driven ones. DOWNTON fails on both counts. The characters, while dressed beautifully and artfully placed inside gorgeous settings, don’t exhibit the same traits from one episode or season to the next, have no institutional memory and are generally eligible for Upper Class Twit of the Year. The plots, such as they purport to exist, stretch and contract, depending on the whims of a madman (Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes) and don’t occur organically or on a reasonable timeframe. Honestly: how many YEARS passed between Mary and Matthew meeting and that thing that happened at the end of last season? Consider how many other characters DID NOTHING during that whole period. It’s mind-boggling how dumb the whole enterprise is. And now they’ve added a Cousin Oliver! An Oliver, for god’s sake!

But it sure is pretty to look at. Also: dog butt every week!

→ A good account of the likely series of events that led to the spreading of the “Spanish flu” here (spoiler: it probably started in the Midwest).