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