Swine Flu: Casting Pearls Before H1N1 Is "H1N1" a better name for the dread disease than "swine flu"? Or is it just a pig in a poke? Lab folks and lexicographers are not too sure.

Swine Flu: Casting Pearls Before H1N1

Who are you calling a swine? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Who are you calling a swine?


Txt Msg Creep

Will we eventually begin speaking in rebuses, or in a candy-heart language that melds letters and numbers, syllables and symbols? That would be 2 weird 2 B true.

Is H1N1, or some derivative, a sign of Internetese or "txt msg creep"? Michael Agnes, editor in chief of Webster's New World dictionaries, says not. He says such alphanumerical designations are frequently used within the scientific community. And nothing but "swine flu" has gained traction so far among the general public.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of digital words that have entered everyday parlance, words and abbreviations that were mostly used in labs a decade ago. Byte, for instance. And "PDF" and "URL."

More and more, it seems, the line gets blurry. The English language has always been amazingly absorbent, able to soak up words and phrases from all over the planet. So we shouldn't be surprised at the inrush of codes and abbreviations from the scientific and digital world. We routinely speak of DSL lines in our house — and of "government 2.0."

Is "H1N1" a better name than "swine flu"? Or is it just a pig in a poke?

Swine flu is, after all, easier to say. And easier to remember. But public officials have been under fire from pork producers to call the infectious dread something else, something less accusatory to — yes — pigs.

Pig farmers have complained that the negative attention to swine flu has hurt worldwide sales of pork. Hog prices have plummeted, and some countries have banned pork products.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first alerted the public to the current outbreak — in an April 23 news release, for instance — the virus infection was called swine influenza.

On April 27, Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack — former governor of the major hog-producing state of Iowa — was still calling it swine flu. But the next day, he was referring to it by its clunky, clinical name. "This really isn't swine flu," he said, "it's H1N1 virus. That's very, very important." He wanted the public to understand that the flu is not spread by eating pork.

"There are a lot of hard-working families whose livelihood depends on us conveying this message of safety," Vilsack said. "And it's not just simply pork production. It's also grain farmers, because markets are very sensitive."

Not So Fast

Scientists, it turns out, are very sensitive as well. According to NPR science correspondent Richard Knox, within the scientific community — and within CDC — there is a lot of tension about the Obama administration's insistence that the virus be referred to as "H1N1." Scientifically, H1N1 is a confusing term for this new flu virus. Two-thirds of the everyday flu viruses making the rounds this flu season are H1N1. And various forms of H1N1 have circulated in humans between 1918 and 1957, and then from 1977 until the present.

Ironically, swine flu is a more scientifically specific term for this strain than H1N1, Knox reports. One solution might be to call the new virus 2009 H1N1, but only a few people are co-operating. On Friday, the CDC referred to it as Swine-origin Influenza A (H1N1) virus. So the naming process is still a work in progress.

For example, during his news conference Wednesday evening, President Obama referred to swine flu simply as H1N1.

Evolution Of A Wordthing

History books — and dictionaries — will eventually settle the question of what the dread disease will be called.

For now, people who care about words find the name swine flu a lot easier to reckon with than H1N1. It does sound like a license plate number.

Michael Agnes, editor in chief of Webster's New World dictionaries, says H1N1 is not a word — it's a code. He says he has no plans to include it in the next editions of his dictionaries. But he could be influenced by the influenza: "If it became a pandemic, we would think about it," he says.

Agnes does, however, shy away from words containing numerals. His dictionaries don't even acknowledge "9/11" as a word.

There's an entry for "nine-ball," a type of billiards game. And for "nine days' wonder," defined as something that created considerable but brief interest. There is even an entry for "nineteenth hole," shorthand for a bar at a golf course.

And, of course, there's "swine flu."

But H1N1 is a different story. "This is sort of extra-lexical," Agnes says. "It's outside the normal structures of language. We have to draw the line somewhere."

The American Heritage Dictionary does contain a few chock-full-of-numbers words, such as nine-eleven. Joseph Pickett, American Heritage's executive editor, says the jury is still out on H1N1, but it could be in a future edition of his dictionary. "It will be if it turns out to be big," he says, "like AIDS or HIV. But it remains to be seen whether this outbreak is going to have a major impact."

NPR editors and reporters Joe Neel, Vikki Valentine, Richard Knox, Richard Harris and Howard Berkes contributed to this story.