Tolstoy and the Grippe.

Ilya Vinitsky has written an article, Война и мор [War and Pestilence], which has been translated by Emily Wang for the Jordan Russian Center. It’s a very interesting analysis of the opening scene of War and Peace focusing on Anna Pavlova Scherer, who, the narrator tells us, “had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St. Petersburg, used only by the elite.” I had never given much thought to this, but Vinitsky explains the significance:

The Tolstoy scholar Evelina Zaidenshnur noted long ago that the writer borrowed the motif of the “fashionable” cough from an ironic note in Parisian Fashions published in The Herald of Europe in 1804. (That year’s copy of the journal may be found in Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana library). […] In Zaidenshnur’s opinion, Tolstoy allowed himself to transfer this very same Parisian fashion to Russia in the summer of 1805. Another commentator notes that the everyday historical context of Anna Scherer’s “grippe” was the epidemic that raged in Europe from 1799 to 1805. […]

It must be said that, in the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth, this disease went by many different names in different countries and even different provinces: influenza (an Italian word that gained prominence during the epidemics of 1729 and 1732), epidemic catarrh, the catarrh fever, miasmic catarrh, bilious catarrh, the spring epidemic, epidemic fever. As the nineteenth century German physician Edward Martini observed, in Italy this disease was called mazuchi, in Spain cocculucas, in France coqu[e]luche (to relieve headaches, the head was often covered with a hood [in French, “cagoule”]), in Germany Ziep [presumably from the verb “ziepen,” to cause a stinging pain], Schafhusten, Schafkranheit, spanischer Pips. They also called it the northern, Chinese, or Siberian fever, the dog’s disease, the pauper’s disease, and the vagrant’s disease.

But the most common term was a word that had already come into usage in the 1740s, la grippe, which nineteenth-century etymologists linked to both French and German verbs for “to seize,” as well as the Russian verb “хрипеть [to be hoarse]” (in Germany they sometimes called this kind of illness “the Russian disease,” russische Krankheit), as well as with the French name for the insect (la grippe) that superstitious people blamed for the spread of the disease.

According to Trésor de la langue française, the word “grippe” initially meant “caprice, whim.” […]

Historians of Russian literary language confirm that this word indeed seemed new in Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first known usage is from 1799, in the youthful diary of the scholar A. Kh. Vostokov; in the fall and winter of 1799, the epidemic, which had originated in Siberia, gripped Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kronstadt and badly infected Emperor Paul I. Later on, the virus progressed to Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw. It’s worth noting that, for a long time, the Russian version of the word took a feminine ending (for example, “гриппа доканала его [the grippa finished him off]), which also testifies to its French origins. […]

In the era of the Bonaparte Consulate, French culture gave la grippe another popular name, now associated with fashion: “the muslin disease.” It was thought that its first victims were French women of fashion who had been wearing overly revealing dresses made from this light material. […]

There’s a great deal more, including Boris Gasparov’s suggestion that Tolstoy’s comparison of the conversations of Scherer’s salon visitors to the endlessly repeated humming of spinning wheels reveals “the hidden presence of the Fates in Anna Pavlovna’s salon in itself symbolizes the novel’s plot.” Anyone interested in War and Peace should find Vinitsky’s piece eye-opening.


  1. The article quotes William Cobbett’s poem on the subject:

    The Origin of the prevailing Influenza, called La Grippe

    While the Faculty doubt whence La Grippe can arise,
    The Doctor, in every thing EQUALLY wise,
    From himself the infection can trace —
    The symptoms, a heaviness fix’d in the head,
    A weakness that rules, whilst all vigour is fled,
    And a dread of all changes of peace.


  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I like miasmic catarrh, and propose to adopt it for the coronavirus henceforward.

  3. John Cowan says

    It’s nice that more recent diseases, however nasty, have more or less international names like COVID-19 (even if the big baby thinks he can use some other name just to bait people).

    I once read about (but never saw) an old vaudeville skit that depends on the pun between grippe and grip ‘small satchel’:

    Two comedians come on stage, one carrying an attache case and looking miserable. The other says: “What’s wrong with you?”

    “Oh, I’ve got the grippe.”

    “Say, that’s too bad.”

    The first one puts down the case and the second one picks it up: his face falls.

    “What’s the matter with you?”

    “Now I’ve got the grippe!”

    The second one puts down the case, but it falls down and the first one steps over it, smiling.

    “Feel better?”

    “Oh yes! I’ve just got over the grippe.”


    So in the 20s or whenever, enough Americans understood grippe to make this joke intelligible and funny.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Grippe invariably reminds me of (ever-lovin’) Adelaide’s lament from the sublime Guys and Dolls.

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    When they get on that train to Niagara
    And she can hear church bells chime
    The compartment is air conditioned
    And the mood sublime
    Then they get off at Saratoga for the fourteenth time!
    A person can develop la grippe,
    La grippe.
    La post nasal drip.
    With the wheezes
    And the sneezes
    And a sinus that’s really a pip!

    -guys and dolls, “Adelaide’s Lament”

  6. Never imagined that anyone associates grippe with хрип. The regular association is гриб, naturally

  7. In modern Bulgarian “flu” is standartly “грип” (grippe), but can be poetically called “куклуш”, (coqu[e]luche). I’ve never associated it wit “хрип”, though, personally. If anything the thing I associate “хрип” with is a theatrecal creaky voice. I guess because of the lack of association between г and х in Bulgarian, with exceptions like in Banat Bulgarian. I have associated “куклуш” with “кашлям” (I cough), though.

  8. Andrej Bjelaković says

    In BCS flu is either grip or gripa.

    There’s a well known song for kids that starts:
    Miš je dobio grip, pa je seo u džip

  9. AJP Crown says

    I like miasmic catarrh, and propose to adopt it for the coronavirus
    I like it too, also miasmic guitar for whiny film music. As well as the smell or atmosphere I discovered a definition for:
    miasm (in homeopathy) a supposed predisposition to a particular disease, either inherited or acquired.
    ORIGIN mid 19th century: from German Miasm

    Via Italian mussolina and then French mousseline the name muslin apparently comes from Mosul in Iraq, where the fabric was first seen by Euros, having been invented in Bengal (Dacca).

  10. Trond Engen says

    miasmic guitar for whiny film music

    A friend of mine used to enjoy playing stochastic guitar. It included randomly adjusting the tuning screws.

    I didn’t know Europeans were invented in Dacca. That sounds like a fringe position within the Out-of-India camp.

  11. Nonsense. Europeans were invented in Bombay; Asians were invented in Dacca. Look at a map!

  12. The muslin fringe from Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians: Volume 3: Including Their Private Life, Government, Laws, Art, Manufactures, Religion, And Early History by Sir John Gardner Wilkinson. Rather interesting and if you like that sort of thing there’s also Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians by Edward Lane, a great-nephew of Gainsborough, 1836 (so not much on Suez or Orientalism).

  13. The Lane book is excellent, with lots of well-observed detail.

  14. David Marjanović says

    “Mis je dobio grip” animated!


  15. AJP Crown says

    The Lane book is excellent, with lots of well-observed detail.
    Yes, the detail and the writing both look great. It ought to be reprinted with pics from the V&A’s 19C photographic collection, lots from Cairo & Alexandria and other parts of Egypt (the huge India prints are also terrific).

  16. January First-of-May says


    Whence Russian коклюш (often with initial stress those days, masking the French origin), which actually refers to pertussis (apparently also known as “whooping cough”).

  17. @January First-of-May: It’s always “whooping cough” in English, even among doctors, so far as I know, except in the abbreviated names of vaccines (such as “DPT,” for “diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus”).

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s always “whooping cough” in English, even among doctors

    You’d probably call it “pertussis” in the context of a lecture, say.

    There are quite a lot of ordinary disease names that doctors happily use even among themselves informally; it sometimes causes confusion that when they do so, they don’t actually always mean what lay people do, but are really using the lay term as a sort of nickname for the learned term, quite often without realising that they’re giving the term a non-standard meaning by doing so.

    An example which I was quite slow to cotton on to was “lazy eye”, by which ophthalmologists practically always mean amblyopia (which you can’t see by just looking at the patient) and not the squint that caused the amblyopia (which is naturally what immediately strikes a layperson.)

  19. David Marjanović says

    Grippe is actually one of those in German: for doctors it’s the actual influenza, but otherwise it’s any severe cold with a fever, so mostly what doctors appear to call grippaler Infekt. (That’s masculine Infekt, not feminine Infektion, for – presumably – some reason. Both are end-stressed.)

  20. I like how Война и мор echoes Война и мир.

  21. The AP this morning quotes Boris Johnson as still being ready “to lead the national fightback against coronavirus.”

    Is this a British neologism, or just a wonky transcription?

  22. New to me, but:

    fight‧back /ˈfaɪtbæk/ noun [countable] British English
    an attempt by someone to get back to a position of strength after they have lost it, especially in sport
    Arsenal staged a spirited fightback in the second half.

    Examples from the Corpus
    • But that was before Sporting’s exhilarating fightback.
    • But she’s being encouraged in her fightback by a young rider who’s recovering from a similar fall.
    • Soon after the virus arrives, the number of protective cells falls, only to rise as the body’s fightback begins.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Huh. If asked, I’d have guessed that like all Horrid Neologisms, “fightback” was American. Just goes to show.
    (Actually, it doesn’t really strike me as a neologism, even. Just clunky. But it would never have occurred to me that it was a Britishism.)

  24. That’s right, blame everything on the seppos.

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    You’ll be telling me that we invented “turbo-charged” next (Positive Johnson’s favourite term of approbation for our soon-to-be Singapore-on-the-Solent economy, liberated from all that foolish trading with the countries geographically nearest to us which has been holding us back all this time.)

  26. Boris “Sonic” Johnson.

  27. Two things wrong with talking about a turbo-charged economy:

    1) Pretty much every new car these days has a turbo-charged engine; being turbo-charged is nothing special. It used to be but isn’t now. Rather like an airline talking about “our all-jet fleet”. Back in the 1950s that was a great thing – you would want to know that you would be flying on a lovely fast Comet IV or 707 rather than some slow, noisy, uncomfortable thing like an DC-6. Not so much nowadays.

    2) Turbochargers have this problem: you put your foot down and there’s a distinct and uncomfortable lag before speed actually happens. It’s called turbo lag. (That and the terrible automatic gearbox are what make driving a modern Mustang such a disappointment.)
    What you want, for a really responsive engine, is a supercharger, which acts instantly.

    So really a turbo-charged economy is one that is a) run of the mill and b) sluggish to react.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    So really a turbo-charged economy is one that is a) run of the mill and b) sluggish to react.

    We can do that!

  29. Pretty much every new car these days has a turbo-charged engine
    Of all the cars sold in Norway last year, 56% were electric. We laugh at your so-called “turbochargers”.

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    What, no solar-powered cars? Greta will be sooo disappointed.

  31. No she won’t. For maximum smugness we in Norway hand-knit our own hydroelectricity.

  32. Bring back the Stanley Steamer! “Power – Correctly Generated, Correctly Controlled, Correctly Applied to the Rear Axle.”

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    Much better than internal explosion engines.

  34. Turbo-charged must be a new concept in Britain. Here’s it’s been turbocharged for quite a while.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    De Pfeffel is bringing the white heat of the scientific revolution to his grateful people.

  36. blame everything on the seppos

    Do you mean seppo Ilmarinen?

  37. Turbo-charged must be a new concept in Britain.

    Actually, the concept was invented in Britain, for use in steam engines (though first applied as what we’d now call a supercharger).

  38. What, no solar-powered cars?

    I suppose it would be possible to build a car that was solar-powered but not electric. You could use a solar concentrator to pressurise and heat air (or another working fluid) in a sealed container, and then release it to turn a turbine and propel the car. Or you could put a giant Crookes radiometer on the roof and link it by a series of gears to the wheels.

  39. John Cowan says

    Or have a very well aimed microwave beam aimed from a power satellite. A similar idea has been proposed for laser-powered planes; they would then require fossil fuels only for takeoff and landing. I can’t find an article directly on point, but I remember reading about it decades ago.

  40. David Marjanović says

    a very well aimed microwave beam

    aka death ray.

  41. SFReader says

    run of the mill

    I wonder what industry originated this phrase.

    Suggests mill grinding of ore to me, but perhaps I spent too much time in mining companies.

  42. OED:

    Originally North American.
    A. n.

    1. North American. The material produced by a mill before being sorted or inspected for quality; (more generally) goods of an uncertain or variable quality produced by a mill. Cf. run n.2 47a, mill-run n. 3. Now rare.

    1876 J. B. Killebrew Rep. Ocoee & Hiwassee Min. District 33 Lumber is cheap. Ten dollars per thousand is the price for inch lumber, the run of the mill; $12.50 for choice.
    1877 Rep. Select Standing Comm. Immigration & Colonization in Jrnls. House of Commons Canada 11 App. 172 The run of the mill will cost from $15 to $16 a thousand, and the selections, throwing out portions of it, makes good flooring.
    1896 W. G. Berg in A. L. Johnson Econ. Designing of Timber Trestle Bridges App. iii. 39 Lumber can be bought more cheaply by giving a general order for ‘the run of the mill for the season’ or ‘a cargo lot’.
    1910 H. Maxwell Wood-using Industries of Maryland 26 The cost of longleaf pine by the run of the mill was $12.05 in 1908 in Louisiana.
    1939 M. Evans & E. B. McGowan Guide to Textiles 66 Run-of-the-mill is a term which in general means that the merchandise has not been inspected… Sheets and pillowcases are frequently sold as run-of-the-mill.

    2. The ordinary, average, or mediocre type of something.

    1922 S. Lewis Babbitt xiii. 170 I guess I’m as good a husband as the run of the mill, but God, I do get so tired of going home every evening, and nothing to see but the movies.
    1966 Polit. Sci. Q. 81 2 As long as the going is good, the run of the mill of the citizenry will not enter the political market.
    2003 K. Scott in C. B. Bailey Age of Watteau, Chardin, & Fragonard 94 Like Mignard, Chardin used formal means, among them portrait conventions, to set his scene apart from the run of the mill.

    B. adj.

    Of an ordinary or undistinguished type or quality; average, mediocre; mundane.
    Frequently hyphenated, esp. in attributive constructions.

    1919 Trans. Med. Assoc. Alabama 263 The run-of-the-mill layman is not nearly so well equipped for this work as the run-of-the-mill physician.
    1933 Sun (Baltimore) 14 Oct. 4/3 An ordinary, run-of-the-mill gravy.
    2008 Review (Rio Tinto) Mar. 7/3 While its most dramatic uses include replacement joints, surgical instruments and heart stints, it has many more run of the mill applications.

  43. I wonder what industry originated this phrase.

    tl;dr: Apparently the wood industry.

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