by John Kelly, Senior Research Editor at Dictionary.com
Most of us have never lived through a pandemic like the coronavirus before, but we have heard or learned about them, from the Spanish flu to, more notoriously, the plague, like the Black Death.
And perhaps, as you’ve followed the news or talked to people about COVID-19, you have even heard the coronavirus called a “plague.”
No, the new coronavirus is not the plague. (Whew. Take a deep breath with us now.) But let’s read on to actually learn about the difference between the coronavirus and the plague to be sure.
For health, safety, and medical emergencies or updates on the novel coronavirus pandemic, please visit the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organization). For more words related to the coronavirus, see our glossary. And for more important distinctions between confusing words related to the coronavirus, see our articles pandemic vs. epidemic, quarantine vs. isolation, and respirator vs. ventilator.
What does plague mean?
The terms the plague or just plague (without the or a) refer to an infectious disease caused by a bacterium spread from rats to humans by means of flea bites.
This plague is what is meant by the Black Death, which was a form of bubonic plague that spread over Europe in the 1300s and killed about a quarter of the population.
Most of us encounter the word bacterium in its Latin-based plural form, bacteria. But when referring to one type of bacteria, scientists use the singular bacterium. In the case of the plague, the scientific name for the bacterium is Yersinia pestis.
There are three forms of plague. The most familiar to you is probably bubonic plague. One of the most noticeable symptoms of this form is the development of buboes (swollen lymph nodes) in the armpits and groin. The other forms are pneumonic plague, which ravages the lungs, and septicemic plague, a particularly nasty kind that attacks the bloodstream.
Other major symptoms of the plague include fever, chills, and prostration—basically like being completely taken out.
The plague causes serious, and often fatal, infections. It is responsible for some of the deadliest epidemics in history, such as the Black Death noted above. Thanks to modern medicine, however, the plague is now extremely rare and not a great risk to many people anymore.
So, what do the coronavirus and the plague have in common? They both are infectious diseases that spread to humans from certain animals (that’s called zoonotic). However, COVID-19 is caused by a virus—essentially a tiny bit of nucleic acid and protein that needs a living host—whereas the plague is caused by bacteria, which are single-celled organisms. Further, while antibiotics work on bacteria, they do not work on viruses.
What makes a plague a plague?
We don’t use the word plague only to refer to the infectious disease specifically caused by bacterium Yersinia pestis.
Plague can also mean “an epidemic disease that causes high mortality” or “pestilence.” More figuratively, plague can mean “any widespread, calamity, or evil,” especially one considered a direct punishment by God.
These senses of plague probably bring to mind biblical plagues, such as the plagues of Egypt, which were ten disasters God inflicted on Egypt, including swarms of locusts, hordes of frogs, a scourge of boils, pestilence of livestock, and the death of firstborn sons.
Pestilence is defined as “a deadly or virulent epidemic disease,” especially the bubonic plague. It’s not clear, though, exactly what type of disease was meant in the Bible.
OK, etymology break: pestilence is ultimately from the Latin pestis, “contagious, disease, plague.” Pestis is also the source of the English pest, which originally denoted the bubonic plague. You may recognize this Latin pestis from above in the name for that plague-causing bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Plague is from the Latin plāga, “stripe, wound,” which became extended to mean “affliction,” including disease.
Now, comparison time. Like a plague, the coronavirus is an epidemic disease—and more, it is considered, now, a pandemic because it has spread worldwide. Also like a plague, the coronavirus is also causing widespread affliction, if we consider all the pain, loss, and distress from the virus.
So, can we liken the coronavirus to a plague? Well, a word like plague generally connotes a massive scale of death that we’re thankfully not witnessing so far with the coronavirus—and we don’t say this to downplay the cost COVID-19 has wreaked on people’s lives and livelihoods.
When the coronavirus is under control across the world and society begins to recover, you may hear people likening the coronavirus to a metaphorical plague due to its consequences. But no, COVID-19 absolutely is not “the plague plague.”
We make the distinction between the coronavirus vs. plague because, in a time of crisis and uncertainty, it can be important to use words carefully and sensitively, speaking about matters accurately and ensuring we don’t cause any panic. And we’ll be here, not judging but explaining, helping to bring clarity and understanding to scary, confusing words.