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Origin and usage
The noun and adjective pandemic come from Greek words meaning ‘all’ and ‘people’. The adjective predates the noun by a couple of centuries, being first recorded in English in the mid 17th century.
There was quite a long period of delay before the outbreak of the new form of coronavirus known as COVID-19 was eventually classed as a pandemic on 11 March. Although definitions vary somewhat, the noun pandemic, like the much earlier adjective, is a technical way of referring to the spread of a disease. While an epidemic is the occurrence of a disease among many people in a community at a particular time, a pandemic is more widespread. According to the WHO, to be classified as pandemic a disease has to affect large numbers of people across a very large area, typically multiple continents or the whole world. Declaration of a pandemic leads to the activation of plans to combat it which may be not only expensive but even in some cases counterproductive. Despite its technical nature, the term pandemic can cause fear in those hearing or reading about it. This may have something to do with its resemblance to the word ‘panic’ which in fact comes from a different root; panic derives from the name of the Greek god Pan, whose wild behaviour in wild places led him to be associated with extreme and irrational fear.
epidemic, incidence, outbreak, virus
Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.
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