measles

The measles is a potentially fatal disease caused by a Morbillivirus, and it is one of the most highly contagious diseases that infect humans. The disease, once rendered rare in the industrialized world, has made a comeback in recent years, largely due to low rates of vaccination. But the name measles is an odd one with an innocuous connotation that belies how dangerous the disease really is. Where does the name measles come from?

Measles comes from a Germanic root, but its exact route into English is uncertain. It appears by the early fourteenth century and is either a borrowing of the Middle Dutch masels or the Middle Low German maselen. Both of these Germanic etymons are plural, just like the English word. The Old Saxon masala is a blood blister, and the disease’s name comes from the red pustules that appear on the skin during the course of the disease.

The first known use of the word in English is from before 1325 in Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. Bibbesworth, an Essex knight, wrote the treatise to instruct English speakers in Anglo-Norman French vocabulary. He glosses the Anglo-Norman word rugeroles with maseles (or maselinges depending on which manuscript you consult). Rugerole literally means “red poppy” and was used to refer to the red rash caused by a variety of diseases. Here, Bibbesworth is referring not to the disease we now refer to as measles, but to a sexually transmitted one. And in early use the word was used to refer to any disease that caused red spots.

The form maselinges in one copy of Bibbesworth’s treatise can still be found in the form measlings in certain regions of Britain. This form comes to English via Scandinavia (compare the Swedish mässlingen, the Danish mæslinger, and the Icelandic mislingar—all plural forms), but this Scandinavian form comes from the Dutch/Low German word, just like the more common measles.

There is also the now obsolete mesel, originally referring to leprosy or other skin diseases and later extended to repellent individuals in general. This word also first appears in English around the year 1300, but it is of a very different origin, coming from the Anglo-Norman mesel, meaning “leprous, leper, repellent person” and ultimately from the Latin misellus, meaning “poor, wretched.” This word undoubtedly had and influence on the spelling and pronunciation of measles, but it’s not of the same origin.


Sources:

Anglo-Norman Dictionary, 1977–92, s. v. rugerole.

Middle English Dictionary, 2018, s. v. masel, n.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2001, s. v. measles, n., measlings, n., mesel, adj. and n. n.

Sayers, William, “A Popular View of Sexually Transmitted Disease in Late Thirteenth-Century Britain.” Mediaevistik, vol. 23, 2010, 187–96.

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