Coxsackie

You may be fortunate enough to go through life without reason to encounter this name, but since I make my living handling information about health, I inevitably met it in the term Coxsackie virus (also sometimes written closed up, as is a standard practice for virus names: Coxsackievirus).

I should first say that, as you have probably guessed, the virus is named after a place. This is common enough for viruses; other places so honoured include Norwalk, Ohio, and Lyme, Connecticut. The place in this case is – can you guess it? Oh, let me give you some clues.

First of all, it’s morphologically opaque; the word appears to be a concatentation of English morphemes that make no sense together, so it’s probably an Anglicization from an indigenous language of a colonized place. The use of c rather than k suggests it was rendered into English somewhat more than a century ago. The use of x is especially telling, particularly in xs: since the x represents a “ks” sound and not something like “sh” from an adapted orthography, there’s a decent chance it’s from a place that had some Dutch influence at one time or another (the Dutch, remember, are the people who gave us names such as Schillebeeckx and Hendrix). Where might that be? Well, think of Tuxedo Park, New York, not too far north of New York City.

Indeed, Coxsackie is not all that much farther up the Hudson River, in New York. Its name comes from ma-kachs-hack-ing (that’s how it’s spelled in Wikipedia, though it’s not an exquisitely phonetic spelling), which was rendered by the Dutch as Koxhackung. The English, when they took over, kept the x but changed the K to a C, as was their wont in the 1700s. And they conformed it to familiar shapes: cox, sack, and the suffix ie.

I think I probably don’t need to point out that, aside from the effect of those bits, the overtones of this word are on the impolite side for most readers. But the sound of it is very crisp and mechanical, like the loading and cocking of a gun or the operation of an old printing press.

Now, then, to the unpleasant bit: Coxsackie virus. The virus was named after an outbreak in the eponymous town. The Coxsackie virus is in the same family as the polio virus, and it has some pretty nasty effects. It is among the leading causes of meningitis, and it can lead to a variety of disabilities. Read a little bit more about the discovery of the virus etc. at virology blog (yes, there is a blog for that, in fact probably more than one; there’s a blog for everything).

One thing that I note about the Coxsackie virus is that belongs to the enterovirus genus Picornaviridae. This seems somehow just a little glancingly suitable, as it has a rather off-colour overtone to go with the blue overtones of Coxsackie. I mean the p and, soon after, orn. You might miss that with all the other overtones, such as pico, corn, and corona, but if you’ve been primed for it, it’s there.

And if you’re wishing you hadn’t gotten started with what Coxsackie sounds like, well, be glad that it’s just the sound of it that’s infecting your brain. If you had caught the actual virus, that would really suck, eh?

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