There’s no mystery about Ebola—the word, that is, not the disease. We know exactly when and how it began, in 1976. The word lay dormant for most of the intervening decades, occupying a quiet corner of our vocabulary, until the resurgence of the virus in Africa and its arrival in the United States just a few weeks ago made the word highly contagious. By word of mouth and print and Internet, it has reached practically every household and hamlet in the land.
Fortunately, for all its fearsomeness, the virus itself is much harder to spread. Known cases in the United States can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand, while the word is in the active vocabulary of many millions of us.
And we don’t need protective clothing to take a close look at the word.
We know that Ebola comes from the Lingala language of central Africa. The virus was named, however, by English speakers: American and European researchers who gathered in Zaire in 1976 to investigate the initial outbreaks of the disease. Peter Piot, one of the researchers, recently recalled how the name came about:
“On that day our team sat together late into the night—we also had a couple of drinks—discussing the question. We definitely didn’t want to name the new pathogen ‘Yambuku virus,’ because that would have stigmatized the place forever. There was a map hanging on the wall and our American team leader suggested looking for the nearest river and giving the virus its name. It was the Ebola River. So by around 3 or 4 in the morning we had found a name. But the map was small and inexact. We only learned later that the nearest river was actually a different one. But Ebola is a nice name, isn’t it?”
Ebola does have a meaning in Lingala. Apparently it’s “dark river.”
It joins two other English words borrowed earlier from Lingala. Both are names of animals: bongo, a kind of antelope, and basenji, a barkless dog well known in the Western world nowadays. The earliest citation for bongo in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1861: “The chief features of the animal are the stripes on each side.” For the dog basenji, the first citation is from 1933: “Three years ago I imported to England five Baseiyis—the smooth-coated chestnut dog of terrier size used by the native chiefs for hunting antelope etc. on the Congo plateaux.”
But there is one linguistic puzzle about Ebola: Why do we pronounce it with emphasis on the second syllable? Compare it with ebony, a word known in English since the 14th century. Both have three syllables and begin with the same three letters, but ebony is always stressed on the first syllable. Here’s a possible explanation: ebony has secondary stress on the final syllable, while Ebola does not.
If only the virus were as easy to treat as the name.
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