The English word flu is an abbreviation of influenza, an Italian word from Medieval Latin influentia, from which the English word influence is also derived. Besides denoting a contagious disease, Italian influenza has the various senses of English influence.
But originally, both English influence and Italian influenza had the general sense of an influx, flowing matter. They were also specifically terms used in astrology to designate the flowing in of ethereal fluid affecting human destiny. From this belief in an astral influence, Italian influenza developed the sense of a visitation, or outbreak, of any epidemic disease which assails many people at the same time and place. Examples of this generic sense, known as early as 1504, are influenza di catarro, catarrhal fever, and influenza di febbre scarlattina, scarlet fever.
In 1743, influenza was applied specifically to the epidemic (also called grippe) which then raged in Italy, and spread over Europe, for which the Italian name, anglicised in pronunciation, became the English specific name. On 12th February of that year, the British diplomat Horace Mann (1706-86), who lived in Florence, wrote to the English writer and politician Horace Walpole (1717-97):
We have strange melancholly doings here. Everybody is ill of the ‘Influenza’, and many dye, particularly among the poor people. Of the rich, or rather ‘nobile’, we lost in the last week, the Abbé Capponi who lived with the eldest Pandolfini, the promoter of all musical matters, and Count Pecori, my next door neighbour, the unkle of the young Count, Cicisbeo to the Pepi, who, last summer married Leopolda Peruzzi, out of spite to his nephew; she is pittied by everybody. The Conderoli at Rome dye a-pace—Pieri, Guadici, and Corradine went off lately. Many others are in an excessive tottering condition.
And The Ipswich Journal of Saturday 5th March of that year reported the following:
By private Letters from Rome of the 14th past, N. S. we have a very melancholy Account of the surprising Progress an Epidemical Distemper, call’d the Influenza, makes there; that in one Day 500 Persons were carry’d to their Graves by it, others prior and subsequent in proportion; that scarce a noble Family in that City had not lost some Person; and that Hearses, Coffins, and the Host carrying to the Sick, were to be met with in all the Streets. They observe from thence, that this Distemper began in Saxony last September, had visited Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence; in the latter it still continued; that it had reach’d the City of Naples, but had not made much Havock; That the Venetians had began a Land Quarantine; and that it was expected the Sea Coasts of other Countries would do the same. Tho’ not in itself a Plague, the Physicians of those Parts reckon it a Forerunner. (Evening Post)
The French word grippe is an old-fashioned English term for influenza. It first appeared in English in a letter written from France on 6th February 1776 by the British lawyer and politician Joseph Jekyll (1754-1837):
An epidemic cold seems to have spread itself from London to Barcelona. In passing through this kingdom it has obtained the name of “grippe”—a term significant enough from the nature of its attack on the throat.
The French word grippe is from, or related to, the verb gripper, which used to mean to clutch, to grab, to seize*. It is from a Germanic root also found in:
– French griffe, a claw
– English grip, gripe, grope
– German greifen and Dutch grijpen, to seize
(* The verb agripper has now superseded gripper in these senses. The verb gripper is now mostly used as se gripper, meaning, of a machine with moving parts, to become jammed, to seize up.)
FLU IN SOME OTHER LANGUAGES
Dutch griep, influenza
Portuguese gripe, influenza, influença
Romanian gripă, influenţă