Hej fever!

Birch flowers and leaves

Birch flowers and leaves

Shut the doors and shut the windows! I know the sun’s shining and it’s perfect weather outside, but it’s birch pollen season too and the last five days the pollen count has been through the roof.

Hay fever never used to trouble me till I lived through a really serious birch pollen season in Norrland in 1993. That seemed to sensitise me, and now it plagues me every spring.

I know I shouldn’t complain. I’m sensitive to birch pollen and then – what else? Cat dander, horses, hazelnuts – they’re all mildly irritating, but nothing to compare with birch pollen. And once the birch pollen season is over I’m back to normal.

This annual two or three weeks of misery is a salutary reminder to me of the difficulties other people go through. My sister has been sensitive to all sorts of pollen since we were children and I’ve taught students who struggle through months of swollen eyes, runny noses and shortness of breath from early spring to the beginning of the autumn.

This year’s birch pollen season seems to be more intense than usual – or I’m reacting more intensely. But it got me thinking about what this condition is called in Swedish and English and wondering when it was first identified. I mean, you wouldn’t expect that this was a new condition, would you? You’d expect that people have been having allergic reactions to pollen of one sort or another for centuries.

I think you’d be right, but it seems the term hay fever is only quite recent.

The standard Swedish word is hösnuva which makes me feel that Swedes don’t really take it very seriously. Snuva is what you call a runny nose, the sniffles. At least the English term involves fever which seems a lot more earnest.

A quick check on hösnuva in the Swedish Academy’s Online Etymological Dictionary shows that the word was first used in 1899; before that (from 1860) the condition was called höfeber … efter eng. “hayfever” as the dictionary says.

Good!

According to my edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, hay fever is first recorded in general use in English in 1829, but the term seems to have been coined in 1819 by John Bostock, an English physician who was the first person to describe hay fever as a disease. I’m guessing, but since he called it hay fever I assume he made a connection with grass (hay).

Before Bostock it seems to have been called summer catarrh. (There was an autumn catarrh as well.)

Open birch flower

Open birch flower

Nowadays when we talk about catarrh we generally mean the gunk that comes out of your nose or that you cough up from your chest when you have a bad cold or the flu. The word comes from the Greek by way of Old French, from katarrein a word meaning to flow down. (In my personal experience, catarrh does not flow, rather it thickly oozes – but I can see how the sense of the word developed.)

In time gone by catarrh could be pretty serious. Catarrhal fever for example was a general term used for the common cold, influenza, some forms of pneumonia … and typhoid. Catarrhal fever as a term comes from the days when people didn’t know what caused disease and tended to clump illnesses together depending on symptoms.

I still feel that summer catarrh and hay fever are more serious terms than hösnuva, not least because I spent a large part of May Day with a slight temperature, but all the other symptoms of a very intense fever: flushed face, cold feet and hands, a pounding headache and a pain in all my joints. I’ve never had such a bad reaction to pollen, and it’s not impossible that it wasn’t hay fever at all but something else, but I have no idea what that something else could be. So I’m going to blame the hay fever.

For more on this read Lenten fever.


References

Online Etymology Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (2nd edn) – in print
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms
Svenska Akademiens Ordbook
Wikipedia
Wiktionary

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