It always seems weird to me that a word can fade from common use in the space of a generation or two. Not a slang word or colloquialism — those change all the time — but a hard solid noun that describes something that’s very much still with us.
But the English language is a living thing, casting off words and growing new ones all the time.
This week, we revisit a word that apparently was in my grandfather’s common vocabulary, but that I don’t think has ever passed my lips.
It’s the Fourth of July, 1968, and my poor Aunt Elaine is under the weather:
“Grippe,” the interwebs tell us, is derived from the French language, and is another term for the flu. One online dictionary describes it as “a former name for influenza,” while Wikipedia describes the term as “archaic.”
The word goes back quite a ways, as shown by its use in this 1837 political cartoon. (Political cartooning, thankfully, has advanced at an even greater rate than the English language.)
I was aware of the term before seeing it on my grandpa’s calendar. But I don’t believe I’ve ever used it, nor do you see it in news reports or other print sources any more. On the few occasions when it turns up, it’s usually used (a) by a historian and (b) specifically for its punning quality, as in this 2009 online post from the Atlantic magazine.
My grandpa’s generation would have been entirely too familiar with it. “Grippe” was a commonly used term (along with “Spanish flu”) for the influenza epidemic that struck the world in 1918-1919, reportedly killing some 50 million people. I am sure my grandfather — an eight-year-old boy in Springfield, Massachusetts — would have seen and remembered the grippe pandemic, because there was simply no escaping it.
Although the word was strongly associated with one virulent outbreak, it continued to linger as a general term for seasonal sickness. This Time magazine article from November 1955 uses “grippe” as one of several generic terms for upper respiratory infections.
That seems to be how my grandfather used it. It turns up again on his calendar six years later — only this time, he’s the one with the runny nose and the sore throat:
The timing of these calendar entries — both in July — suggests that my grandfather used the word “grippe” not just for winter-style flu, but for any common-cold-type illness serious enough to knock him or his kin off the rails.
(Or, perhaps the Blumenau family is just unnaturally prone to getting the flu out of season. If I go to my HS reunion this month, and have a couple snorts too many on Friday night, I’ll just tell everybody I can’t make the formal dinner on Saturday ’cause I’m down with the grippe. It’s genetic, you see. Can’t argue with that.)
I wonder why the word “grippe” faded from common use. It works; it’s somewhat colorful; and the generic ailment it describes certainly hasn’t gone away.
Perhaps it was ultimately outdone by “flu,” which, while less exotic, is shorter, crisper and fits nicely into any headline space. The most efficient alternative usually wins, after all.
At any rate, here’s hoping everyone spends a happy, healthy Independence Day, free of grippe, influenza, flu, Spanish flu or anything else you choose to call it.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a special bonus post. OK, it isn’t all that special. But it will be up Tuesday morning, anyway, if you aren’t doing anything better.