I got a pretty good grade in English ‘A’ level, have spent half my life studying how language actually works and have even managed to publish five books on the subject.
So it’s quite un-nerving to realise that I’m not at all sure what a ‘pandemic’ is, even though it was the only word used in the reports of ‘swine’ (why not ‘pig’) flu in last night’s BBC television news (and every other news report I've heard or read in the last few days).
In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only person in the country who doesn’t know what it means, because journalists and broadcasters have taken to using the word ‘pandemic’ as if it’s perfectly obvious to everyone what a 'pandemic' is.
I definitely do know what an ‘epidemic’ is, because I had the misfortune to suffer from Asian flu during the Christmas holidays in 1957-8 – which I then had to pay for in hard labour, as one of the few ‘fags’ of my year fit enough to serve as a slave for the few prefects who were still well enough to need their shoes cleaning.
But I never heard anyone in the media or anywhere else use the word ‘pandemic’ at the time, and had never heard of it until a few years ago.
This has made me wonder if it’s yet another case of one word being replaced by another for no apparent reason – in the same way as journalists now insist on telling us that something is happening ‘ahead of’ rather than ‘before’ something else.
Dictionaries I’ve consulted haven’t been a lot of help, and the best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that a ‘pandemic’ seems to be an epidemic that spreads across more than one country.
Does this mean that the Asian flu ‘epidemic’ in the Winter of 1957-8, which certainly wasn’t confined to the UK, was in fact a ‘pandemic’?
If so, why didn’t anyone say so in 1957-8?
More to the point, can anyone explain to me why today’s media prefer the word 'pandemic' to ‘epidemic.’?
Or is it just that ‘pandemic’ sounds much more serious than 'epidemic' and makes the story sound more sensational?