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syph·i·lis (sĭfə-lĭs)
An infectious disease caused by a spirochete (Treponema pallidum),usually transmitted sexually or in utero, marked initially by local formation of chancres and progressing if untreated to bacteremia and widespread organ damage, such as skin ulcerations and tabes dorsalis.

[New Latin, from Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus, "Syphilis, or the French Disease," title of a poem by Girolamo Fracastoro (1478?-1553), from Syphilus, the poem's protagonist.]

Word History: When syphilis began to ravage Europe in the late 1400s, it was described with such terms as the "Neapolitan disease," "Spanish disease," and "French disease," according to national prejudices of the person discussing the illness. In 1530, the Veronese physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro offered Europeans a mythological scapegoat in his long Latin poem Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus ("Syphilis, or the French Disease.") In the poem's opening section, Fracastoro argues that the disease was introduced to Europe by the French, but he also adds at the end of the poem two mythological tales written in the style of the Roman poet Ovid and giving supernatural accounts of its origin and supposed cures. In one of these tales, Spanish sailors who have landed in the Americas become infected with syphilis after killing Apollo's sacred parrots. In the other tale, a group of natives tell the sailors the story of a shepherd, Syphilus, who had seen his flock suffering from heat and thirst and cursed the sun god Apollo. The god then afflicted Syphilus with sores, and the scourge spread from him throughout the land. The people of the shepherd's country began to call the disease syphilis, a word formed in Latin from the shepherd's name Syphilus. Eventually, it was decided that the only way to end the plague was to sacrifice Syphilus to Apollo, but Juno interceded, had Syphilus spared, and gave the people a cure, the guaiacum tree. The source of the shepherd's name Syphilus itself is not known, but it has been suggested that Fracastoro adapted it from Ovid's Metamorphoses. In this work, Sipylus is one of the sons of Niobe, a noble woman of Asia Minor who boasted that she was more worthy of honor than the goddess Leto, mother of Artemis and Apollo. Leto had borne only two children, said Niobe, while she herself had fourteen fine sons and daughters. To punish the insult, Artemis and Apollo slew Niobe's children, and Niobe was transformed into a rock on a mountain also called Sipylus, located near the modern city of Izmir, Turkey. (Perhaps Fracastoro intended the name Syphilus to evoke associations with the wrath of Apollo, whose arrows caused plagues.) Eventually, Fracastoro came to recognize that guaiacum was not an effective cure for the "French disease," but he continued to use syphilis as a name for it in De Contagione, ("On Contagion"), an influential work in which he proposed that disease spreads by the transfer of minute disease-causing particles, either directly or by sharing contaminated objectsan important step in the development of the modern germ theory of disease.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices

    Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

    Indo-European Roots

    Semitic Roots

    The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.