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October 19th, 2005

Pandemic vs. epidemic / Mark Twain is or was?

by Barbara Wallraff

Beth Dextrom, of Washington, Mich., writes: “Suddenly we’re hearing the word ‘pandemic.’ I can’t tell the difference between a ‘pandemic’ and an ‘epidemic’ when I look the two up. Is this just another one of those new-age words that are finding their way into the news and our vocabulary?”

Dear Beth: No, there actually is a difference. An “epidemic,” or extensive outbreak of a disease, is bad. But a “pandemic” is worse. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains it, a “pandemic” is an epidemic that spreads “over a very large area; affecting a large proportion of a population.” (A pandemic of bird flu is, of course, what everyone is worried about now.) “Pandemic” is not a new word: The OED includes citations for it from as long ago as 1666.

These meanings are built into the words themselves. The “-demic” part of both comes from “deme,” which means “district, township, people” in ancient Greek. Again in Greek, “pan-” means “all,” whereas “epi-” means “upon, at, or close upon (a point of space or time).” Think of words like “panorama” (a wide unbroken view), “pantheism” (a belief in and worship of all gods) and “epicenter” (the ground directly above the focus of an earthquake). Remembering those other words may help all of us keep “pandemic” and “epidemic” straight.

Bob Cottrell, of Verona Island, Maine, writes: “Which is correct: ‘We all know who Mark Twain is’ or ‘We all know who Mark Twain was’?”

Dear Bob: Maybe Justin Kaplan is the best person anywhere to give you an authoritative answer. Not only did Kaplan edit the latest edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (so he’s a publishing insider who has spent a lot of time thinking about famous dead people), but he also wrote “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain,” the definitive Twain biography.

I e-mailed Kaplan, who wrote back: “That’s a pretty tricky question. I don’t think you could say ‘Who is Babe Ruth?’ without sounding stupid or glued to your Ouija board. But you might say ‘Who is Mark Twain?’ if you were referring to him not personally or biographically but as a literary phenomenon. Even so, I don’t like that -- it’s pretentious. ‘Who was Mark Twain?’ is the ticket.”
Sounds right to me. But please bear in mind that this guideline doesn’t apply to every possible sentence about Mark Twain (or another deceased person). For instance, if you’re talking about Twain’s influence today -- as in “Mark Twain is a beloved figure in America” -- then “Mark Twain is ...” is the ticket.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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