What's the origin of prodromal? Stockbridge etymologist dives deep into pandemic lingo

Photo provided by Stewart Edelstein

It's hard to find the words to describe 2020, and yet, Stewart Edelstein has many — "Uncertain, discordant, fractured, fraught, unstable, anxiety-producing, unsettling, disruptive, and worrisome, but also a time of compassion, empathy, altruism, perseverance and, with a nod to Pandora, hope."

But words -- specifically the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history -- is the Stockbridge resident's passion, and during the pandemic, his life-line, hope or one might even say, salvation. The passionate etymologist, who was bitten by the word bug during his studies at Oberlin College more than 50 years ago, challenged himself early in the pandemic to come up with short essays based on words apt for the times.

"I determined one way get through the pandemic is to write about it," said Edelstein during a phone interview. "I suggested to Wendy Pearson, the director of Stockbridge Library, Museum, and Archives, that it might be of interest to patrons to read short essays, each based on one word related to the pandemic. I sent her some sample essays and she was supportive."

What began March 13 with 300 words about the origins of the word equinox posted to the library's Facebook page, grew into so many short essays -- 50 over 13 weeks to be exact -- that Edelstein felt inspired to expand on each for a book. Fifty essays later, and countless hours spent pouring over his some 200 etymology books, "The COVID-19 Zeitgeist: Fifty Essays," by Edelstein was published. The book is currently being sold for $10 with all proceeds benefiting the Stockbridge Library Association.

When asked to describe the book to readers, Edelstein paused, then thoughtfully replied: "Timely, thought-provoking and entertaining exploration of the pandemic world in which we all live. The essays in this book explore the pandemic itself and nature as a balm for our souls during this fraught time and news events related to the pandemic, as well as reflections on ways we all manage to persevere as best we can."

The words that prompt each essay are not your run-of-the-mill medical terms, or basic COVID-19 lingo. Yes, there is an essay on vaccination -- did you know the word is from the Latin vaccinus, "from cows" referring to the first injection of cowpox in 1796? -- and mask (spoiler: the origin of the word is uncertain, according to Edelstein). But there's also infodemic, Binge, Zoombombing and hunker.

The words that inspired his essays, he said, came from all around him as the pandemic wore on.

"Dr. Fauci said we all needed to hunker down; that's the source of that one," he said. "News reporting about scams [another word that inspired an essay] related to the economic stability package, and articles about a second wave of the virus included the word recrudescence."

Many of the words also have to do with nature, a nod to Edelstein's daily long walks with his wife, Lynn, in and around Stockbridge, where they would see signs of spring emerging all around them.

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"I would see these flowers as I would go for my daily walk with my wife," he said. "As we'd perambulate -- that's just a fancy word for going for a walk -- the more flowers I'd notice were blooming in the Berkshires, so I decided to write about them."

Given the nature of etymology and Edelstein's passion for it, the essays are vast, varied and full of information that hits all sorts of topics. He jokes at the beginning of the book that the process of researching, drafting and editing the essays has been for him "akin to the boy's answer to the teacher's question: 'Can you spell banana?' His reply: 'Yes, but I just don't know when to stop!'" He then goes on to write: "A word limit was imposed for each essay, so you were spared most of my tangents."

Then, in true etymologist form, he explains the origins of the word tangent: from the Latin tangere, to touch.

"For the format of the book, I revisited every single essay I wrote [for the library's Facebook page] and considered what might be of general interest on this topic that I was not able to include because of Facebook's word count limit," he said. "I had a great time exploring more tangents, but there were restrictions I had to impose on myself."

Edelstein did want to note that while there were many other important things going on in 2020 outside of the pandemic, including the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, he decided to stay on course with the theme of the pandemic and keep any kind of political discussion out of this work.

"While being well aware of the protests regarding Black Lives Matter, that was not what I set out to write about -- even though many words came to mind, I decided to stay on topic," he said.

Edelstein, who was also a commercial trial lawyer for 40 years and taught clinical courses at Yale Law School, said even though the book is bound and published, he continues to write more of these essays for his own enjoyment and interest. His love of words and their origins is evident in his explanations; even in casual conversation he just can't help himself to further explain the meaning of a word, where it came from or how it relates to another word.

For example, when explaining his favorite essay in the book he said, "My favorite essay is the one on altruism, because it includes elements of etymology, entomology, brain chemistry, literature, Buddhist philosophy, advice from Sesame Street characters Elmo and Cookie Monster, and humor, all on a theme so important during this pandemic. Altruism is evidenced by such actions as volunteering at food banks, providing emotional support to friends and neighbors, taking precautions such as wearing masks and six-foot distancing, and contributing to charitable organizations that help people in need during this difficult time."

When asked if he was like a kind of word detective, he laughed and replied, "Yes, that's what I am."