5dez 2021
00:00 UTC

Myth and polysemy in disease etiology

Folklore can evoke monstrous causes for disease, e.g., witches spreading plague (Brooks) or vampires bringing porphyria and tuberculosis (Lane; Ponti). Or conversely, that contagion creates monsters, like the zombies in Ling Ma’s Severance and Stephen King’s The Cell. But even in the realm of prosaic illnesses like colds, pneumonia, and flu, myths and urban legends shape how their spread is predicted and infection can be avoided. Word choice, however, can help keep a myth in circulation.

Anthropologists have documented and othered ideas found across Latin America (Weller) and China (Zhu et al.) about cold temperatures causing illnesses. But this connection is pervasive in American folklore as well (Keeley). Catching a cold, in particular, can be tracked through centuries of vernacular writing from Samuel Pepys’s diary (Gyford) to Benjamin Franklin’s letters (Green) to Joyce Carol Oates’ memoirs, considering whether being cold or wet leads to developing a cold. Earlier studies surveyed respondents for their ranking of belief in particular health myths (Burgoon & Hall; Cozma). Here I seek unsolicited traces of such myths in vernacular corpus data. 20th/21stth century corpus excerpts from vernacular health discussions further reveal that this trope is contemporaneously instantiated as both a causal claim, as in (a), and its myth-busting counter-claim, as in (b).

a) “barefoot on winter nights: If you catch cold and die from cold feet, you’ll be put into a box and buried deep, deep under the ground.” (Sewanee Review, 1990)

b) “You know, you don’t get a cold by going out in the cold weather after a shower despite
what my mother told me.” (CBS Sunday Morning, 2002)

Both types strengthen the connection, however; for as George Lakoff observes, “When we negate a frame, you evoke the frame” (3). Indeed, Heath et al. note that urban legends are “prominent in the social environment, they have achieved their prominence because people often regard them as true” (1029).

The pervasive polysemous cold/cold connection in English is also found cross-linguistically, with morphologically related pairs encoding the low temperature connection to disease: frio/resfriarse (Spanish); froid/predre froid (French); freddo/de prendere un rafreddore (Italian); koud/verkouden (Dutch); kalt/sich erkälten (German); студ/ простудиться (Russian).

Furthermore, catching-a-cold myths extend to not just the base cold/cold pairing, but to semantically related referents of both the cause and the effect. Corpus data depicts feeling cold leading to: a cold/being sick/pneumonia/a fever/your death. While causes discussed include being cold, chilled, having wet hair or wet clothes, in a draft, or having a bare head or bare feet. Shivering from chilliness, then, is conflated with shivering from fever, encouraging lay people, whether medieval or contemporary, to bypass ideas of bacterial and viral transmission, and attribute illnesses to visible, controllable states of the body.