In the UK, corona is not a word which many people – apart from aficionados of Mexican beer and/or Cuban cigars – had much cause to utter before January this year.
After its sudden elevation to unwelcome prominence, I have been looking into the word’s origins and history.
The label on that well-known brand of Mexican beer features an image of a golden crown.
Corona is Latin for ‘crown’, ‘wreath’, ‘halo’. In modern languages directly descended from Latin it broadly retains this form. For example, in Spanish, Italian, and Catalan it is corona; French speakers say couronne and in Romanian it’s coroană.
The word is first recorded in English in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, probably as a ‘borrowing’ from French in the late 11th Century.
But over time we see a change in form – the vowel in the first syllable is eventually lost (through a process which linguists call ‘syncope’), resulting in crown. This development occurs across the family of Germanic languages to which English belongs: Krone (German), kroon (Dutch), krona (Swedish), krone (Danish).
It is, I think, a beautifully precise, even poetic name. But the poetry is tempered by the fact that it denotes a relentless, devastating scourge
In present-day English, echoes of the original Latin form can be heard in words which we associate with regal headwear, such as coronation and coronet, but the link between crown and corona might not have registered with many people when they first encountered it in the name of a virus.
The reason for that is historical. Beer and cigars aside, these days we really only find corona in the domain of science.
Why is that?
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the vocabulary of English underwent a huge expansion as new words were needed for new fields of human inquiry, particularly in the natural sciences.
The languages of scholarship – Greek and Latin – provided a rich repository of such items. Amongst the borrowings from Latin was corona.
But this time it returned as a specialist term to describe a range of crown – or halo-like concepts: a circle of light appearing around the moon or sun; the upper portion of a body-part, such as the tooth or glans of the penis; the body-wall of sea urchins; an appendage at the top of a seed, and – in the form of coronary – the arteries encircling the heart.
So, until the pandemic, it was really only scientists – in particular astronomers and biologists – who had recourse to this word. And virologists, of course.
The term coronavirus was coined by the eminent British scientists June Almeida and David Tyrrell, who in 1966 first imaged and identified a new family of previously undescribed human respiratory viruses to which the strain which causes COVID-19 belongs.
But why coronavirus?
In 2002, Tyrrell recalled how imaging of the particle through an electron microscope revealed a ‘fringe’ of petal-like protrusions which he thought resembled a halo – corona – and so the name coronavirus was born.
It is, I think, a beautifully precise, even poetic name. But the poetry is tempered by the fact that it denotes a relentless, devastating scourge. Despite its etymological interest, corona is a word we’d all like to hear a lot less of.
Mike’s extensive research on the language and culture of our region is archived at The Dialectological Landscapes of North East England website