Chikungunya, the Government(?), the Media(?) and the Jamaican People

Image of Chikungunya virus, based on electron microscopy

Image of Chikungunya virus, based on electron microscopy

Have you ever heard of chikungunya? According the Wikipedia the all-knowing, It is a viral infection, first discovered in 1952 in eastern Africa. It is transmitted via the Aedes mosquitoes, and has spread since then. It’s now made its way to Jamaica, land we love, leaving many who have suffered, and even as I type this, many who continue to suffer from the itching and joint pain characteristic of this infection.

But this is not a medical blog; this is a language blog. So, I turn your attention to the word itself: chikungunya. A video I watched recently features an irate commentator, Carla Moore, who exclaims (as an aside):

First of all, when a disease comes out, can we please figure out a name for the disease that Jamaicans are friendly to?

That really got me thinking. I mean, in this very video, she lists some of the names that Jamaicans have for this disease:

  • chikin likl (chicken little)
  • chik filie (chick fillet)
  • chikin ganariya (chicken gonorrhea)

The ones I’ve heard most often are chikin gon (chicken-gun) and chikingonya. In fact, the connection with gon (gun) has taken such root that contracting the illness is expressed as, “Chikin shuut/shat im.” (A/the chicken has shot him.)

So, back to Carla’s suggestion. Considering the difficulty Jamaicans, especially monolingual Patwa speakers, have had with the word chikungunya, is it reasonable to demand or expect that the relevant health authorities, or perhaps the media, disseminate information on the virus and the disease with a moniker that is more palatable for the Jamaican tongue?

It is not a matter of thinking that the Jamaican people are not intelligent enough to make sense of the word; that is not the point at all. The issue, I think, is that Patwa is not considered the language of information in this country, so it perhaps never entered the mind of the authorities and media to consider the linguistic competence of the people of this country. As if they ever do.

As usual, the elite of the country are busy rolling their eyes at the ‘ignorant’ Jamaican people, with corrections like, “It’s chikungunya, not chicken gun!” And, of course, the vernacular language variation is the source of jokes:


In other countries, I suspect the transition of information from one language to another might be smoother. ( I admit that might be the ‘grass is greener’ perspective talking, though…) In Japanese, for example, the disease is called チクングニア熱 (chikungunia netsu, chikungunya fever). The Japanese language is the language of information in Japan. I suspect that it is at the level of research or reporting that the word entered the language. Not so for us. The reporting is done in English, and our people are forced to make sense of what they hear.

But… is that something the health and government authorities should care about? Honestly, yes, I think so. It would demonstrate respect for the language of the people, and thus the people themselves. What form should that take? Having linguist consultants available? Sure, that could work. But maybe if the people who disseminate information were to think about the Patwa language first or alongside English, there would be less of this happening anyway.

In any case, all of this has demonstrated powerfully the creative power of language, if nothing else.

Chikin shat yu yet?

(As an aside: “The word ‘chikungunya’ is thought to derive from a description in the Makonde language, meaning “that which bends up”, of the contorted posture of people affected with the severe joint pain and arthritic symptoms associated with this disease.” Thank you, Wikipedia.)

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