Humans like to name things — it’s just what we do. Even a crippling, horrific disease has a moniker to go by. Some diseases such as measles and chickenpox have become such household names that many don’t even stop to think of the origins of the words. Well, you, my curious reader, I just so happen to have the answer to your question.

What They Do To The Body

Many diseases are aptly named after what they do to the body. This is particularly true for many ancient diseases that were named in a time before science could tell you any more about an illness than what you could see with your eyes.

For example, take the ever-popular chickenpox. Many incorrectly assume that, like the more recent “bird flu,” the name has to do with how our ancestors believed the viral infection was spread. Chickenpox has been observed for centuries, and although there is no concrete evidence as to who originally named the virus and why, researchers have some clue about its roots. Interestingly though, this evidence was set forward by linguists, not biologists.

According to Mental Floss, the Old English word for the verb “to itch” was giccan. It’s easy to see how over the centuries giccan could have gotten misheard as “chicken.” In an essay on The Informed Parent, Dr. Louis P. Theriot, a pediatrician at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in California, presents another hypothesis for the common virus’s moniker, explaining how some believe the name comes from chickenpox lesions' resemblance to what one would expect to see if a child had been pecked with the bills of chickens.

Even more interesting, in other parts of the world, chickenpox is named after the chickpea. For example, in many Arab countries the childhood disease is known as “hummus,” and in Spain it's known as “garbanzo,” both names associated with the chickpea. It’s easy to see how the chickenpox resembles the chickpea in size, shape, and color, and some have speculated that the English name is actually more closely related to this legume rather than the farmhouse bird.

The measles has a similar story behind its name, thought to come from the Dutch word masel, which means “blemish,” Medical News Today reported. However, like the chickenpox, this meaning is speculative and the true roots of the name have been lost in time.

You’ve probably heard the disease chikungunya in the news, too, especially after Lindsay Lohan became recently infected. Chikungunya derives from the Kimakonde word meaning “to become contorted,” which refers to the stooped appearance that the joint pain causes in sufferers. The Kimakonde people live in modern day Tanzania and northern Mozambique, both areas historically afflicted by chikungunya epidemics.

Geographic Locations

Other disease names come from areas where either the disease is believed to be derived from or where the disease most heavily afflicts. One of the most popular of these is Africa’s Ebola virus. Ebola is barely over 38 years old, which means that much of the world’s population remembers its discovery and how its name was chosen.

Dr. Peter Piot and his colleagues named Ebola over a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. By this time, the virus had already killed hundreds, and doctors needed a name for the invisible force they were so desperately fighting. The virus had originated in the town of Yambuku in Zaire, but the scientists feared that by naming the virus after the tiny village, the villagers would run the risk of being alienated. Instead, they named the virus after a river that followed near the village. The Ebola River, which means Black River in the local language “seemed suitably ominous,” wrote Piot, as reported by LiveScience.

Other diseases whose names have geographic roots include the West Nile Virus, which turned mosquitoes from annoying pests to life-threatening enemies for many Americans; the Coxsackie viruses, the most common of all hand foot and mouth diseases, named after none other than Coxsackie, N.Y.; and Marburg Virus, named after a town in Germany.

How You Catch Them

It would seem that a clever way to name a virus would be to describe how one would catch it. This way unknowing victims could be forewarned as to how best to protect themselves. Such was the idea of those who named malaria. Unfortunately, the name-givers were completely wrong in their idea of how the virus spread, but many centuries later the name has stuck.

Malaria comes from the Italian phrase mala aria, which translates to “bad air.” The name can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed the disease was caught through the inhalation of foul-smelling air. Today we know this is wrong. In 1880, Dr. Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran discovered the parasite responsible for the disease, and a decade or so later Dr. Ronald Ross found that the mosquito in turn spread this virus among the human population. By then, however, it was too late; the phrase malaria was too ingrained in the mind to be changed to a more accurate descriptor.

While a doctor may put down the “rhinovirus” as the cause of your stuffy nose and sore throat, we all know that when you call in to work sick, you’ll tell your boss you have “the cold.” The cold is actually a quite general term that is used for many respiratory tract infections. Such as in the case of malaria, before humans realized that the cold was caused by a virus, they named the illness after what they believed caused it. This time, however, it wasn’t foul-smelling air, but rather cold air.

Amazingly, people believed this old wives' tale up until 1968, when a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found “no effect of exposure to cold on host resistance to rhinovirus infection and illness that could account for the commonly held belief that exposure to cold influences or causes common colds.” Why is it then that colds occur more in colder weather? This is because, while the cold doesn’t “cause” the rhinovirus, it does affect how our body responds to the infection. Recent research has shown that in cold temperature our bodies are less efficient at fighting off the common cold, which is why its effects are most fiercely felt in the winter months, io9 reported.

Who 'Discovered' Them

Lastly, we have the class of illnesses that were named after the scientists who uncovered their existence and shared it with the rest of the world. The diligent scientists who dedicated their lives to uncovering the cause of these ailments received the honor of forever having their name associated with a horrific and painful disease. One of the most notable is Crohn’s disease, named after Dr. Burrill B. Crohn. Crohn chose to study afflictions of the stomach after watching his father suffer with terrible indigestion for the majority of his life, The New York Times reported. In 1932, the doctor identified the cause of Crohn’s disease as localized inflammation of an area of the small intestines called the ileum. Although he gave the condition the name ileitis, it was later changed to Crohn’s disease in recognition of his work.

Another condition named for its discoverer is Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that starts in the white blood cells, called lymphocytes. It was first described by Dr. Thomas Hodgkin’s more than 175 years ago. In 1832, he published a paper where he described a pattern of disease that afflicted both the lymph nodes and the sleep. Rather than brush it off as an infection, which most doctors in this time did, Hodgkin theorized that the condition was a disease all on its own. However, it wasn’t until some time later that a second man, Dr. Samuel Wilks backed Hodgkin’s theory and proved that the disease he described was actually a type of cancer. Wilks went on to name the disease after its discoverer in 1965, merely a year before Hodgkin himself died.