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flunami

noun [countable]

an extremely large increase in the number of people suffering from flu (=a common infectious disease making you feel hot, weak and tired)

'Flunami could head to Saskatchewan … It's being called the worst flu season in more than a decade, and it could be headed to Saskatchewan. Eastern Canada is seeing seven times the typical amount of influenza cases this month.'

Global Regina, Canada 18th January 2011

'Coughs and sneezes spread diseases …' It might be a hackneyed old adage, but is as true today as it's always been. It's the time of year when it seems like every other person you know is struck down by some annoying cold or flu virus, and the frequently fluctuating temperatures of 21st century winters only seem to have exacerbated the problem. In recent weeks, some parts of the western world have witnessed such a sudden and dramatic increase in the incidence of flu cases that health professionals have even been using a new word to refer to the epidemic – a flunami.

officials believe that the panic and hype surrounding the H1N1 virus … may have put people off getting a flu vaccination

In early 2011 the word flunami was thrown into the spotlight by the Canadian media, reporting a massive surge in the number of seasonal flu cases in certain parts of the country. In Canada, the number of flu sufferers exploded to such an extent that there was a significant impact on health services. Emergency departments became overcrowded and elective surgery was postponed in some hospitals, which had to increase the number of beds available to flu patients.

Viewed by health experts as one of the worst flu seasons that Canada has ever experienced, the flunami is thought to have been caused by a combination of factors. Officials believe that the panic and hype surrounding the H1N1 virus during the past couple of years, which turned out not to have as serious an impact as feared, may have put people off getting a flu vaccination. Moreover, the flu which was rife in early 2011 was caused by a different virus, H3N2, a strain which is more likely to affect the elderly and those with underlying health problems. In an effort to both relieve the immediate situation and reduce the potential for future flunamis, Canadian public health officials have been urging people to be immunized with a new vaccine protecting them against both strains.

Background – flunami

The new coinage flunami first emerged back in 2006, in the context of discussions surrounding avian flu, the strain of flu which hit the headlines in 2004 and is also known as bird flu.

Flunami is a catchy blend of the words flu and tsunami, capitalizing on the presence of the vowel 'oo' in both words. It's an interesting and relatively unusual example of a blend involving a loanword which has itself only recently been adopted into the language.

Tsunami is a Japanese word formed from the fusion of tsu, meaning 'harbour' and nami meaning 'wave'. It refers to the series of waves formed when seawater is rapidly displaced on a massive scale, and its effects can range from being undetectable to catastrophic. Previously confined to the vocabularies of seismology (earthquake) experts and geography academics, the tragic Asian tsunami on 26th December 2004 catapulted the word into general public consciousness. Subsequently a figurative sense also emerged, as people started using tsunami to refer to any kind of sudden influx or deluge, especially one with negative or serious consequences. It is this popular sense that the new blend flunami exploits.

Flu is the commonly used abbreviation for influenza, and first appeared in the mid 19th century. The word influenza is a 100 years older, and based on the Italian for 'outbreak of an epidemic'. The word originally applied to a specific influenza epidemic which began in Italy in 1743, and was later adopted in English as the name of the disease.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 21st February 2011.

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