Feeling flulike? It's the epizootic Folksy: That old term your grandma used to decribe colds and similar ills was first used to name a horse disease.

SUN JOURNAL

January 17, 1998|By Jim Warren | Jim Warren,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Coughs. Sniffles. Aches. Pains. The croup. The grippe. Why, you might even come down with the dreaded epizootic.

The whaaa?

The epizootic. Or, if you're less formal, the epizooty.

Not so long ago, in many parts of the country, if you sneezed, coughed or otherwise showed signs of catching a cold or the flu, someone probably would say, "Watch out, you're getting the epizootic."

The word was a catch-all folk expression for any kind of cold or similar illness. When you got the epizootic, you went to see the doctor.

"It was an archaic term for any flulike illness," says Dr. Barry Purdom of Lexington.

Dr. Mary Pauline Fox, former chief of the Pike County (Ky.) Health Department, recalls, "Whenever you had influenza or a cold, it was the epizootiac. I can remember my grandmother saying that. But I remember hearing it as 'epizootiac.' It always had the 'ack' on the end."

There were many variations, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English. You could get the "epizooty," the "episoozick" or the "hepizootic." And if you were truly unlucky, you might come down with the "epidoozic," which must have been a real doozy indeed.

The term wasn't limited to rural areas.

"Anytime I sneezed, my grandfather would tell my mother, 'Don't worry, he's just got the epizootic,' " says Lexington's William Stewart, who grew up in Evanston, Ill.

But if you check the dictionary for the definition of epizootic, you'll find that it is defined as an "epidemic among animals." How did the term become attached to human ailments?

Well, it turns out there really was something called the epizootic, and it devastated much of the country 125 years ago. But it didn't infect people. It attacked horses.

Thousands of animals -- from pack mules to plow horses to thoroughbreds -- in at least 33 states became ill in the fall of 1872 with a mysterious equine influenza that was dubbed "the epizootic." Symptoms included a discharge from the nose, watery eyes, fever and exhaustion.

In a nation that still largely ran on horse power, it was a disaster.

Horse-drawn streetcars, stagecoaches, delivery wagons, fire engines and personal carriages all came to a halt. In some parts of the East, even canal boats had to be docked because there were no horses to pull them.

For comparison, imagine all our Chevies, BMWs and Pontiacs suddenly quitting today.

From New York to Lexington, merchants became desperate because the lack of horses made it nearly impossible for them to receive or deliver goods. Some hired gangs of unemployed men to pull their delivery wagons, men stepping into the traces in place of disabled horses.

The disease, which apparently came out of Canada, appeared in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire around September 1872. It spread quickly through the Northeast.

Up to 16,000 horses soon were sick in New York City, with the New York Times reporting a "total suspension of travel" on Oct. 30, 1872.

Manhattan became a "vast horse hospital," according to the New York Herald, which on Oct. 26, 1872, envisioned: "the awful future -- a city without a horse."

Other cities and states were similarly stricken. Livery stables, street cars and coach companies shut down in Maine, Connecticut, Virginia, New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston.

The Boston Globe reported on Sept. 28, 1872, that it was "difficult to find a single uninfected animal on the streets."

Veterinarians flooded newspapers with advertisements and articles touting cures for the epizootic. But few treatments worked.

The disease reached Kentucky around mid-November.

As in the big cities to the north, virtually every endeavor in Lexington that required horse power came to a halt. Delivery wagons stopped rolling. Farmers couldn't get to town. Horses almost disappeared from the city streets. And the Lexington fire department, with its horse-drawn fire equipment, was crippled.

"Sound horses cannot be found, and the fire department will be powerless," the Lexington Daily Press warned. The paper urged all able-bodied men in town to sign up as volunteers to pull the fire engines in case a blaze broke out.

Following that lead, Lexington businesses, such as Milward & Co. and Brenner & Swift, hired crews of men to pull their delivery wagons. Some also brought in teams of oxen to replace horses.

Eventually, though, the epizootic died out. Horses in the RTC Northeast actually were recovering by the time the disease hit Kentucky. Most horses survived.

"A History of Animal Plagues in North America," printed in 1939, ++ says the epizootic death toll varied from state to state, reaching about 15 percent in some areas. That's relatively light considering the number of horses infected.

But the epizootic was not forgotten. People gradually began to use the word to describe, not just diseases in livestock, but colds and flu in people as well.

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