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Word of the day: koorts (fever)

Why is the word KOORTS the only word of its kind, Nina asked me last week. There is no other language in the world with a word that resembles ‘koorts’ meaning ‘fever’. English has ‘fever’, German ‘Fieber’, French ‘fièvre’…. And so, Nina (tongue in cheek) asked: is Dutch KOORTS a special kind of fever.

All those words resembling ‘fever’ are related to Latin ‘febris’ (fever) which goes back to the verb ‘fovere’ meaning ‘to warm’ or ‘to heat’. Before English fell for ‘fever’ Old English knew the word ‘hriðing’. The verb ‘hriðian’ means ‘to shake’, ‘to quake’. Pity this graphic word vanished in the fog of time.

The word KOORTS may be unique but the sensation is feverish wherever you may be. The condition of fever is generally characterized by a rise of body temperature above the normal temperatures of 36.5–37.5 °C (97.7–99.5 °F). As the temperature of your body rises, you’ll feel cold first and later warmth.

In this day and age of medical progress we know that fever is usually caused by viral or bacterial conditions. In the good old days when people had no idea that blood was pumped and circulated through the body, KOORTS was not seen as a symptom but as a disease in itself.

My good old friend Constantijn Huygens who lived in the 17th century suffered from many fevers in his long life according to doctor Barend Haeseker. After he retired, he wrote a learned book about the way medical science is represented in the works of the great Dutch poet (‘Constantijn Huygens, Villeine hippocraten’, Rotterdam, 2010).

Huygens described the feverish feeling in a letter in diplomatic French dated 1626: ‘le mal qui faict bouiller mes veins’ (the disease that makes my veins boil). Very often the cause of fever in those Dutch days was malaria. The Dutch malaria mosquito (Anopheles maculipennis) loved the swamps and ditches of the low lands and was active here until the fifties of the previous century.

Huygens wrote the following short poem about his lifelong enemy:

Corts (1674)

Doctoren, segt, waer komt de naem van corts van daen?
Ick derv ‘er dus na gissen,
Al siet men ’t dickwils missen,
Dat als de corts verschijnt is ’t corts met ons gedaen.

(Fever / Doctors, tell me, where does the name ‘corts’ (fever) come from? / I’ll hazard a guess, Though one sees it will often miss, / That when the ‘corts’ (fever) appears, ‘corts’ (shortly after) we’re done for).

Punster Huygens is playing with the words ‘korts’ (short) and ‘koorts’ (fever). And he was allowed to that because in those days there was no prescribed spelling. So ‘fever’ could be spelled as ‘corts’, ‘coorts’ and even as ‘curts’.

If you consult the inexhaustible ‘etymologiebank’, you’ll see that the source of the word KOORTS is unknown. However, a couple of years ago a Leiden scholar called Michiel de Vaan (1973) ventured a new etymological explanation.

In his essay ‘Etymologie en dialectgeografie van koorts’ (2010) he suggests that KOORTS is related to the Gothic verb ‘kriustan’ and the noun ‘krusts’ which both mean ‘chattering’ (of teeth). The Dutch verb for ‘chattering’ is ‘klappertanden’, a shivering movement that many people perform when they are suffering from high fever.

This explanation sounds extremely feasible to me, especially if you consider that the Old English verb related to ‘fever’ ‘hriðian’ means ‘to shake’ or ‘to quake’. O yea, ‘kriustian’ and ‘hriðian’: klappertanden en beven.

‘Fever’ and KOORTS have been terrifying words for most of humanity’s existence. During the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, between 20 and 40 million people suffered terrible degrees of KOORTS. The ‘Spanish Flu’, ‘La Grippe’ or ‘De Griep’ killed more people than the Great War (WWI).

The words KOORTS and ‘fever’ have lost much of their frightening sound now. Peggy Lee’s song ‘Fever’ even has an undeniably erotic ring to it. It was originally written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport in 1956. But when Peggy Lee (1920-2002) recorded it in 1958 she added several verses to the song. Just listen to it.

I love Peggy Lee’s anachronistic lines of pure feverish poetry:

‘Romeo loved Juliet
Juliet she felt the same
When he put his arms around her
He said, “Julie baby you’re my flame”

Thou givest fever, when we kisseth
Fever with thy flaming youth
Fever I’m on fire
Fever yeah I burn forsooth’

KOORTS, yeah, what a lovely way to burn!
KOORTS, ja ik brand voorwaar!