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The pandemic drums are beating again.

As I type this (just after Thanksgiving), I’ve been seeing more and more media reports of increased concern about Asian flu. (Exhibit A: The staid New York Times, on Nov. 17, reporting “Bird Flu is Spreading in Asia, Experts (Quietly) Warn.“)

Last time a pandemic threatened the world, which would have been around 2009 or so, my place of employment prepared a mammoth contingency plan. My copy’s been sitting in a file cabinet ever since; I guess I oughta dust it off and see what it says. (It will also be good to have handy so I can throw it at the first person who exclaims, “We need to make a contingency plan!”)

Anyhow, we had a pandemic almost 50 years ago, right around this time of year. So we’ll pack up our tea and tissues and head there this week.

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The Cazenovia, N.Y., Republican goes for the seasonal spin, December 25, 1968. Front page made available by nyhistoricnewspapers.org.

According to Wikipedia, the Hong Kong flu of 1968-9 began causing trouble in the Far East in July 1968. It came to America in September — brought home by returning Vietnam War veterans — but did not spread widely until December, when it became front-page news.

An archived U.S. government site says the Hong Kong flu killed about 34,000 people in the U.S. between September 1968 and March 1969. For context, that’s 10 times higher than the U.S. death toll from the 2009 flu pandemic, but only about half as many deaths as the 1957 Asian flu pandemic.

(Of course, all of these events are dwarfed by the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which killed 500,000 to 675,000 people in the U.S., including one or two of my great-grandparents and doubtless others on the family tree.)

For most people who got it, the Hong Kong flu produced three or four days of discomfort, with high fever, chest tightness, general body aches and fatigue.

In most places, the flu affected society in relatively small ways. The Cazenovia news article shown above (that’s in the Syracuse area, by the way) noted that school absenteeism had risen to 17 percent, and holiday mail in town had seen minor delays because eight Post Office employees had been off work at the same time.

Other areas seem to have sounded the alarm more loudly. The Massena, N.Y., Observer of Dec. 19, 1968 (that’s in the far northern part of the state, on the Canadian border), quoted the American Red Cross as calling it “a disaster situation.”

Officials in New York City estimated one in every 16 New Yorkers had had the flu in the prior two weeks, with 300,000 of them currently at “the most critical stage” of the illness. School absentee rates of 30 percent were reported in the Pittsburgh area.

(Perhaps the highest-profile flu victim: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was resting in Phoenix. Reports of flu are also frequent in sports reports from late 1968 — victims included Bill Russell, Dave Bing, and 20 members of the Minnesota Vikings — though it’s not specific whether these were cases of Hong Kong flu or just regular ol’ grippe.)

People over 65 were at the highest risk of dying from the disease. No surprise, then, that my 82-year-old great-grandmother was the first one at 1107 Hope Street to get a Hong Kong flu shot. (Everyone had already gotten regular flu shots in early November.)

She took the pencil into her own hand to document it:

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December 13, 1968.

Although some news reports at the time said flu vaccine was reserved for the elderly, my grandparents (in their mid-50s) and my aunt (college-age) also managed to arrange Hong Kong flu shots that holiday season.

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December 16, 1968. My grandma, Corine…

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December 17, 1968. My grandpa, Bill (a.k.a. WHB) …

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December 23, 1968. And my aunt, Elaine.

The stuff must have worked, as my grandpa’s calendars through March 1969 give no indication of anyone being sick.

Will we do so well again this year, or in the year to come? We can hope, anyway.

If not, I’ve got this big contingency plan I can read while I’m flat on my back…

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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:

July 4, 1968. (This, incidentally, is also the first example of my grandfather's art to feature on 5,478 Days. There will be more.)

“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:

July 18, 1974. "WHB" is my grandfather.

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.

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