If, like many of us, you are suffering or have suffered from a cold or flu this year, you might be interested in some particularly useful international terms and idioms regarding these common ailments.


120px-9F49For instance, in China, the complex and rare character 齉, nàng, is quite appropriate. This 36-stroke character stands for “stoppage of the nose, causing one to speak with a nasal twang” according to Wiktionary. Other translations simply put it as a “stuffed nose,” or “nose no ventilation.”



Isn’t it odd that we say “to catch a cold” in English? It’s not like we caught it on purpose, such as catching a fish. In a way, isn’t it more like the cold caught us instead?



In Finland, a country quite inured to the cold of Baltic winters, they have a verb vilustua. The root of it is vilu, which means “cold.” In English, vilustua translates to “to catch a cold.” As the above bicycler in Helsinki shows, not even the most severe winters slow the Finns down too much. It would be hard for a cold to catch them!


There are (at least) five verbs describing how to catch a cold or flu in Spanish: resfriarse, constiparse, apestarse, afluxionarse, and agriparse.

  • Resfriarse means “to catch a cold.” Note that it has the feminine state of “cold,” fria, as the root word.
  • Constiparse means “to press together,” and thus means to “catch a cold,” with an inference to having congestion in the nose. (It does not mean anything like the English word “constipated;” as such, it is called a “false friend” in linguistics).
  • Apestarse can also mean to “catch a cold,” yet may also mean “to be blighted,” or “to catch the plague.” It comes from the root apestar which means “to sicken” or even “to stink.” (And yes, getting a cold does stink!)
  • Afluxionarse shares the same root, “flux,” as the archaic English term for “discharge,” inferring diarrhea or dysentery. Though this also means, generally, to come down with a cold, it might be more appropriate for a stomach flu.
  • Agriparse is also used for coming down with a cold, but it also means to catch the flu. In Spanish, la gripe or la gripa (in Latin America) means the flu.

Italian (and Latin)

This is the language from which we get the origin of the word “flu” itself, since it is short for influenza. During the medieval era, Italian doctors attributed the astrological influence of the stars on the widespread outbreak of disease. For instance, they used influenza to describe a 1504 epidemic of scarlet fever. This word leaped over into English in 1743, during a widespread and deadly outbreak of the disease in Rome. In 1839, it was shortened to “flue,” and then, by 1893, to just “flu.”

At the time, no one really knew what caused the deadly and dangerous flu, or how it differed from a common cold. Just the year before, in 1892, the word “virus” itself was first coined by Dmitry Ivanovsky. It would take decades more, and long after the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic that killed 20 million people worldwide, before scientists were able to isolate the influenza virus. It was Richard Shope, an Iowa physician, who in 1931 successfully identified swine flu, which paved the way for its identification in humans two years later. It was Jonas Salk, who we also credit for the polio vaccine, who worked with Thomas Francis to invent the first flu vaccine in 1938.

Oh, and vaccine? That comes from a Latin origin for “cow.” It was coined in 1798, as a way to inoculate people from small pox by infecting them with the similar but far less deadly disease of cow pox.