Stupid Question ™
May 10, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Why is a cold called a cold?
A: Prepare yourself for a very humorous explanation.
Western medicine from the Late Greek era until the Renaissance was dominated by a group of medical writings attributed to Hippocrates, the “father of medicine.”
Though sometimes contradictory and clearly written by several different authors, these writings together put forth the “humors” theory of physiology.
The humors were four supposed bodily fluids (in the mature theory, blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) essential to life. A balanced quantity of these fluids made for good health; imbalance caused disease. (Imbalances were typically treated by getting rid of the excess humors through sweating, purging, bleeding and similar unpleasantries.)
These humors were considered holistically linked to other natural phenomena that also seemed to come in groups of four: the four elements (earth, fire, water and air), the four seasons and, notably, the four “qualities,” which were dry, moist, hot and cold.
Thus, hanging around a moist, hot swamp in the summer could pump up your choler levels (since choler was linked to heat), resulting in “hot” diseases such as fever or diarrhea. Not a particularly accurate theory by modern medical standards, but enough to keep you away from malaria-infested mosquitoes all the same.
Likewise, cold was notoriously linked with phlegm. The idea was that exposure to cold (especially moist cold) increased phlegm production, which in turn caused a variety of diseases. Even back in the original Hippocratic writings, phlegm was singled out as a real pain for causing the “winter diseases.”
While this idea permeated Western thought for the entire history of the English language, it had to wait quite a while to become embodied in our modern terminology. The word “cold” as we know it today is a product of Middle English, c. 1200, and it competed with the Old English Kentish/Saxon dialect version “cheald” until around 1300.
However, once settled in, “cold” quickly cut out the phlegmatic middle man and became a term for any disease “caused” by coldness. Physicians referred to “colde diseases” and diagnosed sicknesses as being caused by “taking cold.”
Eventually, “cold” became a proper noun specifically applied to the family of upper-respiratory diseases we continue to call the “common cold.”
Modern medicine attributes the cause of the cold to a group of viruses. Colds are more common in winter, but it probably has nothing to do with temperature; a more likely explanation is that we spend much more time indoors breathing each other’s exhaled viruses.
However, the power of a name is a strong thing. Nearly 200 years after the death of the humoral theory, many people still consider colds to be caused by cold.