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Mind your language

How Ebola got its name

And why it isn’t Yambuku fever

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

It should perhaps be called Yambuku fever, since that was the village in Zaire (as it was then, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) where it was identified in 1976 by Peter Piot, a scientist from the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. He is now director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and went back to Yambuku earlier this year, meeting a survivor of the 1976 outbreak. Professor Piot decided to name it after the river Ebola, 60 miles from Yambuku, because he realised the stigma that would attach to the disease.

In that, Yambuku is luckier than the German town of Marburg in Hesse, where seven people died of a haemorrhagic fever identified there in 1967, or Lassa in Borno state, Nigeria, where another haemorrhagic fever was described in 1969. Poor old Lassa has in recent times also been attacked by Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorists. Norwalk, Ohio, gave its name to Norwalk or winter-vomiting virus and Lyme, Connecticut, gave its name to a tick-borne disease, even though people often refer to it as Lyme’s disease, as though it were named after a man: Harry Lyme perhaps.

The Congolese river Ebola is called, in the local Ngbandi language, the Legbala, which means ‘white water’, giving a former French name l’Eau blanche. The French name Ebola is an adaptation of Legbala. I have seen it spelt in French with an acute accent on the initial, though this seems to be unwarranted. In any case, French accents signify vowel quality, whereas in Spanish they indicate stress. In Spain, where a nurse was infected after looking after a missionary who died of Ebola fever, it is called enfermedad de Ébola or simply ébola. In this there is a parallel with Parkinson’s disease, called in common parlance in Spain párkinson, correctly stressed on the first syllable, like the surname of James Parkinson (1755-1824), who in 1817 published An Essay on the Shaking Palsy. It was Jean-Martin Charcot who named it maladie de Parkinson, in 1876. Why the Spanish stress ébola on the first syllable, I don’t know. By the time we English have finished with it, the first syllable, being unstressed, is like a short-i. We have domesticated the name, if not the disease.


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