What to call the influenza virus that’s so much in the news, the one that most people refer to as “(the) swine flu”? There’s been considerable dispute about the name, since no name that’s been suggested so far is entirely satisfactory. The CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has recently weighed in in favor of a name with “H1N1” (for the family of viruses responsible for the infection) in it, but even that somewhat unwieldy label (which is unlikely to become an everyday usage) still won’t quite do.

(Side point: various kinds of influenza are sometimes referred to anarthrously, without the definite article the, and sometimes arthrously, with the article: “Asian flu” or “the Asian flu”. It looks like the shorter anarthrous usage is more common than the arthrous usage, but both occur. In addition, both influenza and the clipping flu are in common use.)

The CDC information site (from 8 May) consistently (and somewhat cagily) refers to the H1N1 virus as if it were identical to the disease (everyday usage sometimes works this way, as when people say they’ve “caught a virus”), and then modifies virus, to emphasize that we’re dealing with a new strain. Some excerpts:

What is H1N1 (swine flu)?
H1N1 (referred to as “swine flu” early on) is a new influenza virus causing illness in people …

Why is this new H1N1 virus sometimes called “swine flu”?
This virus was originally referred to as “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs in North America. But further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and avian genes and human genes. Scientists call this a “quadruple reassortant” virus …

Can I get infected with this new H1N1 virus from eating or preparing pork?
No. H1N1 viruses are not spread by food. You cannot get this new HIN1 virus from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe.

There’s a reason for the formulation “this new virus”: different strains of H1N1 were responsible for the “Spanish flu” pandemic that started in 1918 and a 1976 outbreak of “swine flu” that did not turn into a pandemic. (The “Asian flu” pandemic that started in 1957 involved a strain of H2N2.) So “H1N1 flu” is insufficiently informative. Lauren Collins, in her entertaining New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece of 11 May (“By Any Other Name”, filed under “Sow’s Ear Dept.”), tells us that the federal government seems to have settled — details below — on “the 2009 H1N1 flu”, scarcely a catchy name.

Collins continues:

An Israeli health minister, loath to utter the words [because swine refers to an “unclean” animal and alludes to the banned food pork], attempted to rename the virus the “Mexican flu” [because the earliest cases seem to have appeared, and spread, in Mexico — a terminological suggestion that was passionately resented by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans]. The hog farmers and the pork processors proposed the “North American influenza,” [neither catchy nor likely to be popular] while the North American politicians were pushing “the H1N1 virus” …

(Collins reports an exchange between Senator Tom Harkin and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on the terminological question and then concludes with a riff on the unpleasant associations of the word swine.)

Here’s some detail from the American Meat Institute site (on 30 April):

The decision to change the name of the virus — formerly known as swine flu — was announced by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acting chief Richard Besser and was reiterated by other government officials during a briefing.

“We’re calling it the 2009 H1N1 flu. That’s now the name for it,” Besser said while explaining the disease was a new hybrid flu and that people could not catch the virus from eating pork.

The name change was meant to address a common misperception that the illness was in pigs or pork, which has not been shown to be true.  Despite the fact that the disease has not been found in swine and has only been found to spread from human to human contact, the U.S. has lost 10 of its pork export markets.

Others have suggested that since 2009 H1N1 is a hybrid virus, it should referred to as “the hybrid virus”. There are several drawbacks. The lesser one is that there are plenty of hybrid viruses in the computer world. The greater one is that there are also plenty in the world of biology, some of them naturally occurring, but many of them deliberately engineered — a fact that has led some people to the paranoid speculation that 2009 H1N1 is an engineered virus. In addition, the label “the hybrid virus” suggests hybrid cars and can lead to mockery, as in a clip from Jon Stewart available several places, for instance here:

The pork industry wants those of us in the news business to refer to this not as swine flu but as the hybrid flu.

Oh yes that’s smart, I can’t think of any struggling industry that would object to that. Why not just go all the way and call it the Chevy-Tahoe-Hybrid Flu.

I suspect that, despite objections from some Jews and the pork industry, most people are going to stick with “(the) swine flu”, which got there first and is as brief as possible. Even the New York Times, as in this front-page story about food-borne infections (“Outbreaks and Recalls Put Worry on the Table”, by Andrew Martin and Gardiner Harris), which has the parenthetical comment, “(Swine flu, despite its name, is not contracted from food.)”.

4 Responses to “Swine!”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    We could pronounce it “hiney” – that’s catchy.

  2. Philip Says:

    Is a “catchy” name desirable?

  3. The Ridger Says:

    If you want people to use it instead of “swine flu”, yes.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    “Mexican” isn’t out of play yet. The editorial “Still wide open to killer flu” in the 9 May New Scientist (p.3) has references to “the Mexican H1N1 virus”, “the Mexican H1N1”, and “the Mexican virus”.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: