Bacteria and Germs and Viruses! Oh My!

pandemic_risk_by_wirdoudesigns-d526a5cWell, dear readers, it’s the last week of October, and we are wading through cold and flu season in my little part of the world. In my household alone, at least one of us has been sick for the past three weeks. That got me wondering about the words we use to describe the nasty little organisms that make us sick. In a minute, I’m going to tell you about the etymology of three of those words.

But first, I have a little surprise for you.

I am pleased to announce that I will be hosting my very first guest blogger! Who is this mysterious writer? Her name is Anne Bell and she is an ESL teacher at a local college here in Ottawa. Anne has graciously agreed to talk to you about the passive voice. So keep your eyes peeled for part one of her two-part series later this week.

All right. Before I succumb to my next coughing fit, let’s look at the etymological origins of…


This word describes any number of different large groups of unicellular micro-organisms that lack organelles and an organized nucleus, some of which can cause disease. It is the plural version of the Modern Latin word, bacterium, which comes from the Greek bakterion. Bakterion means small staff, and is a diminutive of the word baktron, meaning stick or rod, which, in turn, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root bak-, meaning a staff used for support.

As you may have guessed, the first bacteria to be observed through a microscope were shaped like little rods. Although bacteria were first observed in 1676 (by Dutch scientist, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who called them animalcules), their modern name was not applied until German naturalist, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, came up with it in 1838.

Personally, I rather like animalcules, although it does make them sound awfully cute and cuddly.


This word has a few different meanings. The one we’re interested in today is used to describe micro-organisms, especially ones that cause disease. When the word germ first appeared in English in the mid-1400s, it described a bud or a sprout. It comes from the Middle French germe, meaning a bud, seed, fruit, or an offering. Germe, in turn, comes from the Latin germen, meaning to sprout or bud, and which may have come from the Proto-Indo-European root gen-, meaning to beget or bear.

In 1796, germ was used to describe the seed of a disease. Its use to describe a harmful micro-organism followed less than a century later, in 1871.


This word describes submicroscopic organisms with non-cellular structures that usually consist of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat, and that can only multiply inside the living cells of a host. Virus first appeared in English in the late 1300s, when it was used to describe a venomous substance. It comes from the Latin word of the same spelling, used to describe poison, plant sap, slimy liquid, or potent juice. It likely comes from the Proto-Indo-European root weis-, meaning to melt away or to flow, which was used in relation to foul-smelling fluids.

The use of virus to describe something that causes infectious disease was first recorded in 1728, before what we now call viruses were discovered by Russian botanist, Dmitri Ivanovsky, in 1892.

Oh my.

It’s interesting that all three words can be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European root. It’s also interesting to see how the three different words evolve from their original meanings to the ones that we know (and sometimes hate) today.

Image credit: WirdouDesigns @ deviantART

6 thoughts on “Bacteria and Germs and Viruses! Oh My!

  1. I agree “animalcules” is much cuter than “bacteria”…. although when I say cute I mean from a distance! I hope everyone in your household gets better soon. I love that you took the fact that everyone was ill to find out the etymology of these words!

  2. I’m sorry you and your family have been sick. After reading this, I feel like I need some hand sanitizer or something 🙂 Looking forward to your guest blogger’s post on passive voice!

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