Word of the Day


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


1. any serious disease that spreads quickly to a lot of people and usually ends in death

2. something that is very common and harmful

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun plague is a borrowing from Latin ‘plaga’ and has been around in English since the 14th century, when it meant a blow, a wound, or a calamity, especially one that was seen as a divine punishment.


Reports of three cases of bubonic plague in patients from the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in China are a reminder that this disease, which once swept through whole populations killing millions, is still with us. The disease, which is usually transmitted by the bite of a flea infected with a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, is treatable with antibiotics. As with other words for natural scourges, plague has a number of extended and figurative uses both of the noun and the verb. A large and harmful increase of animals or insects can be referred to as a plague of them, while the word is also used to refer to common and harmful social problems such as violence, corruption, poverty and so on. If you feel that a person or thing might harm you, you can avoid them like the plague, or keep away from them entirely. In Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the dying Mercutio curses the families whose feuding has led to his death with the words ‘a plague on both your houses’, and the phrase is sometimes still used to wish harm on someone or something.


“From winter, plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us!”
(Thmas Nashe, Summer’s Last Will and Testament)

“A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.”
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

Related words

hazard, menace, threat, danger, peril

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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