A WORD IN THE HAND: RABIES

SUE DE GROOT | Everyone has some form of rabid aversion, it’s all the rage

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

25 November 2021 - 20:09 By SUE DE GROOT
Rabid mammals might drool, act in a way that appears mad, and sometimes are afraid of water.
RED RAVER Rabid mammals might drool, act in a way that appears mad, and sometimes are afraid of water.
Image: reddogs/123rf.com

As if a new Covid-19 variant were not enough to make us nervous, there have been reported outbreaks of rabies in parts of KZN and the Eastern Cape.

Do be careful not to kiss any strange dogs, mongeese, kudu or people in these areas, particularly if they look as though they’ve just had a large cappuccino and haven’t wiped their lips.

Rabies is of course no laughing matter. If it is not detected before the symptoms kick in, it is almost always fatal.

In humans, rabies used to be called hydrophobia, which in antiquarian medical journals is also listed as one of the symptoms of the disease. From the Greek hydrophobos, meaning a dread of water, this word became associated with rabies because mammals who have it sometimes exhibit an irrational fear of water and refuse to go near the bathroom.

A couple of months ago, Los Angeles magazine reported that a growing infestation of Hollywood celebrities have come out as hydrophobic. Among the A-listers who during the last decade have admitted to not bathing every day — sometimes not even once a week — are Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Jake Gyllenhaal, Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron.

This does not necessarily mean that these entertainers have rabies, although some might consider them slightly mad. 

The fatal infectious disease began to be known as rabies in English in the 1590s, adapted from the Latin rabere, meaning to rave or be mad. 

Etymologically speaking, rabies and madness are much closer to each other than soap is to Mila, Ashton and co. The fatal infectious disease began to be known as rabies in English in the 1590s, adapted from the Latin rabere, meaning to rave or be mad. 

Rave can also be a noun. I once went to a rave, back in the day when such things existed. People were either swaying dreamily or dancing frenetically to what sounded like the same song played in slightly different keys, over and over for hours and hours. Some adults had infant dummies in their mouths. Some were gently patting every stranger they encountered. Others clutched water bottles as props that did not seem intended for either drinking or washing. No one was foaming at the mouth, fortunately — or not that I saw, anyway — but after that experience I totally understood the connection between raving and lunacy. Also hydrophobia, for that matter. 

Hydrophobia is now considered an old-fashioned term and not entirely medically accurate when describing the symptoms of a rabies sufferer. Two other archaic words that were once associated with rabies have also become rare. The first is aerophobia, a dread of air, which these days might describe anyone with a healthy fear of Covid-19.

The second is pantophobia, which sounds like a pathological aversion to characters dressed up in wigs and makeup who perform in a festive-season family play. Pantophobia is not a fear of pantomimes, however. It is a fear of everything.

I feel enormous sympathy for anyone who suffers from pantophobia. It is entirely understandable, in these strange and disturbing times, how extreme anxiety can overcome one’s reason. But the outstanding pantomime Cinderella is now on at the Johannesburg Theatre and is highly recommended. Wear at least one mask, even if you aren’t aerophobic: it’s your civic duty.

Getting back to rabies, the root word rabere also gave us “rage”, which originally meant to play, as toddlers do in a sandpit. Toddlers being what they are, the meaning of rage gradually shifted from a gleeful romp by irresponsible youth — although it has been semi-resurrected in the form of Matric Rage — and came to mean the anger expressed by someone frothing at the mouth in a mad fit of fury about a borrowed tricycle or a stationary minibus.

Come to think of it, “road rabies” would not be a bad word for what happens on our roads, whether on the way to Rage or not. Be safe out there.

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