Given their topicality, two of the emails I received last week form the basis of today’s discussion. Inter alia, the first one read: “Growing up in the English language from primary school through college, my tutors of English language taught me that the word ‘discuss’ is never followed by the preposition ‘about’. They would say for example- we will discuss that topic tomorrow and not- we will discuss about that topic tomorrow. Many a journalist in both the print and electronic media and other good speakers of English language have used ‘discuss about’ with abandon”.
The second email read; “Hi Alex, thanks for your important Monday column. Please remind the Kenyan media and the larger public in your next piece of the correct use of the word “pandemic”. Increasingly, in the face of the ongoing developments, Kenyan media uses the words “global pandemic” together. Basic English acknowledges that a pandemic is an epidemic of global extent. It’s thus repetitious to use the two together”.
When we consider that humanity is under a coronavirus attack and what most people discuss in homes and on social media today is the negative effects of the virus on society, the emails quoted above interlock. Notably, both emails finger journalists as the culprits in the wrong application of the words in question. As aptly pointed out in the first email, the expression ‘discuss about’ is tautological in the sense that ‘discuss’ (verb) is defined as ‘to talk about”.
Ideally, we discuss what has been identified, or specific things, say, how coronavirus will induce the worst ever global economic depression. ‘About’(preposition) means ‘concerning’ (something already identified as a topic). Basically therefore, ‘discuss’ and ‘about’ mean the same thing. For instance; ‘Let’s talk about Atwoli’s opulence’ and ‘Let’s discuss Atwoli’s opulence’ drive the same point. As shown in the second example, the word ‘discuss’ is a transitive verb that should be linked to the object directly.
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However, if there is need to use the word ‘discussion’ (noun), the rule changes. Unless the word ‘discussion’ is at, or towards the end of a sentence, the preposition ‘about’ comes immediately after the noun or after an intervening verb. For instance; “Police brutality in the wake of a national curfew was the topic of our discussion yesterday”; “Yesterday, our discussion was about police brutality in the wake of a national curfew” or, “Yesterday we had a discussion about police brutality in the wake of a national curfew”.
Following an outbreak of the dreaded coronavirus in Wuhan, China, in December last year, media accounts have featured the words outbreak, endemic, epidemic and pandemic. The constant denominator in the last three terms is the word ‘demic’, which assumes different meanings whenever prefixes ‘en’, ‘epi’ and ‘pan’ are affixed to it. ‘Demic’, from Greek word demos (meaning village) is an adjective used to refer to ‘a distinct population of people’. One of the dictionary definitions of ‘Pan’ is ‘all-inclusive, especially in relation to the whole of a continent, racial group, religion’. In addition, pan, the short form of panoramic, refers to things that are extensive, broad, far reaching and all encompassing.
On the other hand, ‘epi’ is defined as ‘upon’, ‘near’. In terms of usage therefore, ‘epi’ is restricted in scope. In Kenya, for instance, we have had epidemic cases of highland malaria and cholera. Thus, ‘epidemic’ and ‘pandemic’ are indicative of geographical areas under attack by a disease that infects many people. Most diseases that progress to become pandemics start as outbreaks, become endemic, then epidemic and finally pandemic.
When Covid-19 started in Wuhan, it must have been regarded as an ordinary outbreak of the common flu given the symptoms. Within weeks, it progressed to become an epidemic after it attacked more people than would have been expected in the case of a common flu outbreak.
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At that point, despite the large number of people affected, it was an ‘epi’ (upon/near) ‘demic’ (people/village) of Wuhan. The moment the virus broke loose of Wuhan and spread its tentacles across the world, it became a ‘pan’ (continent) ‘demic’ (people/village)- continental or global village. We often read about pan-Africanism or pan-Americanism. The ‘pan’ in these cases alludes to political advocacy that revolves around the holistic interests of the African and, or American continents.
A pandemic is, therefore, a disease that afflicts the whole world (global) or most of the world’s countries. That said, to use ‘pandemic’ and ‘global’ in the same breath is tautological.
Mr Chagema is a copy editor at The [email protected]