'Epidemic'/'Pandemic' Distinction Requires Fine-Tuning

By Rob Kyff

March 25, 2020 3 min read

During the current coronavirus scare, I've been taking comfort in playing the piano. I'm a terrible, self-taught player, yet banging out old show tunes helps me forget my worries. Come what may, "I'm Gonna Wash That Virus Right Outa My Hair!"

But my piano has been sounding like a rusty box spring, so I asked my piano tuner to pay a visit. After patiently tweaking every note to perfect pitch, he surprised me with this question: "What's the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?" Oh, no!

The answer to his query could be a scientific sonata, but here's the do-re-mi: It's simply a matter of scale.

An "epidemic," from the Greek "epi-" (upon, over) and "demos" (people), is a disease that spreads rapidly among a large number of people at the same time.

A "pandemic," from the Greek "pan-" (all) and "demos," is more widespread; it occurs over a broader geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. Both terms refer to the geographic range of a disease, not to its potency, and a pandemic disease is not always worldwide, so "global pandemic" is not redundant.

"Epidemic" is often used in a figurative sense to refer to something nonmedical that affects a large number of people, e.g., "Texting while driving has become an epidemic." "Pandemic" is used metaphorically much less often.

Not to open a Pandora's box, but another "pan-" word has recently popped up in connection with the new coronavirus. In early March, Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times that federal officials dealing with COVID-19 have been struggling "to find the balance between public reassurance and Panglossian dismissiveness."

"Panglossian"? That adjective, meaning "excessively or foolishly optimistic," first appeared during the 1830s. It's an allusion to Dr. Pangloss, tutor of the title character in Voltaire's 1759 satirical novel, "Candide."

Though Dr. Pangloss had survived the Lisbon earthquake and had been partially dissected and hanged during the Spanish Inquisition, he remained an incurable optimist who "glossed" over everything ("pan-"). His mantra: "All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."

Another "pan" word associated with the viral outbreak is "panic." Pan, the Greek god of fertility and pastures, also had a maniacal side. During the Battle of Marathon, he's said to have run amok among the Greeks' Persian enemies, terrorizing them so intensely that "panic" eventually came to mean "sudden widespread fright."

In the current crisis, I'm hoping for less panic and more piano.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: Iguanat at Pixabay

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