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Origins of a Name – Chickenpox

We know how a lot of diseases got their names, and it’s not always the kind of association that you might think.

For example, Fifth disease got its name because it was literally the 5th disease known to cause a fever and a rash!

“Measles is, he says, derived from the Dutch maseln (measles); the disease is also called in Holland mczsel-sucht, the measle-sickness; so translated by an old English writer. The literal sense is “small spots.”

Sykes On the Origin and History of Some Disease Names

And measles likely comes from the Dutch word for “small spots.”

So Why Do They Call It Chickenpox?

While that all makes perfect sense, one name that you likely don’t give much thought to, maybe because we don’t see it much anymore, is the name chickenpox.

How did we end up with the name chickenpox?

Did you ever think it was spread from chickens?

That it is caused by the varicella-zoster virus doesn’t really help understand the nickname. Nor does the fact that reactivation of chickenpox leads to shingles or herpes zoster.

“In 1767, an English doctor, William Heberden, realized two important things. First, he showed that chickenpox is different from the more deadly disease, smallpox. Second, he showed that once a person has had chickenpox, that person usually never gets it again (In other words, they’re immune for life). “

Case file: Blister Sisters

William Heberden wasn’t the first to study chickenpox though.

Was he the first to name it, in his paper, On the Chicken-Pox?

William Heberden doesn't provide any clues to how chickenpox got its name.
William Heberden doesn’t provide any clues to how chickenpox got its name.

Probably not…

  • the Charaka Samhita, an ancient Ayurvedic text describes chickenpox
  • Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia – described chickenpox in the 16th Century
  • Dawud al-Antaki – talks about chickenpox in his book Tadhkirat Dawud in 1599, but considers it a benign form of smallpox
  • Richard Morton – also describes chickenpox as a mild form of smallpox in 1694
  • Thomas Fuller – wrote about chickenpox in his Exanthemologia in 1730
  • Samuel Johnson – described chickenpox in 1755 in his dictionary

So none of that really tells how why we ended up with the name chickenpox though, does it?

One big clue?

In 1886, Thomas Fagge claimed that the origin of the term chickenpox came from the word “chickpease,” because the early chickenpox rash looks like a chickpea…

One thing is clear though. Chickenpox has been around a long time, but fortunately can now be easily prevented with the chickenpox vaccine.

More on Chicken Pox

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