The Fearsome Amphibrach

By Cyberquill 10/20/20142 Comments


Describing the inadvertent albeit colonialization-facilitating import of infectious diseases to the Americas by the European invaders in the wake of the New World’s official discovery by Christopher Columbus, a 2002 article in The Atlantic, titled 1491, provides this somewhat disquieting observation in light of the current Ebola situation:

Brought to Mexico apparently by a single sick Spaniard, [smallpox] swept south and eliminated more than half the population of the Incan empire.”

So is karma being a bitch by having brought Ebola to Texas via a single sick Liberian? (For starters at least.)

This recent headline from The Kansas City Star addresses the hysteria:

Ebola has potential to stir irrational fears in Americans, some experts say

“Some” experts? And what do all the other experts say? That Ebola has no potential to stir irrational fears in Americans? And what about non-Americans?

Just the other day, a non-American acquaintance of mine, who for many years has been attending classes at a particular facility for adult education in Vienna, Austria, informed me of her decision to stop using the bathroom in that building. Her reason? Because the cleaning lady hails from Nigeria—a country of 174 million people that has thus far reported some twenty cases of Ebola—and “who knows whom these blacks come in contact with?”

Irrational? You make the call.

One of the problems with Ebola, obviously, is its place of origin, namely Africa, the black continent. Expressing concerns, irrationally or otherwise, over anything that can be sourced to that part of the world—excepting, perhaps, the human race at large—comports ill with prevailing standards of political correctness.

According to a piece on titled The problem with “Ebola”: The troubling, xenophobic language of disease, the term Ebola itself is racist.

How so?

First of all, Ebola is named after the Ebola River, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (It follows that Stockholm Syndrome must be a racially charged condition as well, as Stockholm happens to be located in the whitest part of the world.)

Furthermore, Ebola is an amphibrach, a trisyllabic metrical foot that consists of a stressed syllable sandwiched in between two unstressed ones. While this phenomenon occurs in English as well—in words like together or forever—it is much more typical of African languages: Obama, Mandela, Ebola, etc.

This means that Ebola sounds “recognizably African,” i.e., inherently alarming.

Speaking of sandwiched, if you look hard enough, I suppose, you eventually will find racism in the proverbial ham sandwich.

But no matter the actual prevalence of genuine racism expressed as exaggerated fears of a deadly virus—amplified by its Afrophobia-inducing amphibrachic appellation—accusations of xenophobic attitudes concerning Ebola are a foregone conclusion.

For instance, many Americans, primarily those of the conservative persuasion, are calling for a commercial travel ban to the U.S. for individuals from Ebola-ravaged nations. Efficacy and feasibility issues aside, would the general call for such a ban be (a) just as loud, (b) even louder, or (c) more muted if Ebola originated, say, in Norway or in Germany, instead of in West Africa?

At first blush, one might expect the the call to be more muted, for, irrespective of its lethality, to inveterate white xenophobes—i.e., the population segment one would expect to favor preemptive travel restrictions most fervently—a “white” virus naturally would seem less scary than a black one.

On second thought, calling for a travel ban from white nations wouldn’t carry the risk of being branded a racist or a xenophobe. Minus this particular concern, vociferous support for a travel ban might actually be more widespread than it currently is.

In the end, the number of calls for a travel ban that are solely prompted by xenophobia may well be offset by the number of calls for a travel ban that are never made due to being-accused-of-xenophobia-phobia, resulting in pretty much the same volume of calls for a travel ban from West Africa as would be made for a travel ban from Switzerland, if that were ground zero for Ebola.

In the latter case, of course, Ebola wouldn’t be called Ebola, but maybe Limmat, after a little-known river in Switzerland. Being a good, old-fashioned trochee, Limmat sounds reassuringly Caucasian, does it not? Who could possibly be scared of catching Limmat?


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  • Richard

    eBola sounds like as not to have been created in Silicon Valley.

    However that may be, whatever the truth of the matter that it is a gruesome, horrible, lethal and virulent disease to which too few countries are responding with help, given that culture, superstition, fear and lack of expertise and finance mean that the necessary controls and preventatives aren’t in place, some have a special interest to spread exaggeration, despondency and alarm, not least the reporting industry.

    What happened to the vaccination which received so much publicity at one stage? I must have missed the outcome of that.

    All the hullabaloo over bird ‘flu and the public money wasted on unecessary publicity and medicines have made me more cautious about accepting things at face value. There is a strong case to be made for richer countries to be more energetic, prompt and forthcoming with assistance to relieve the sufferings of poorer countries, but not by calling wolf, frightening people or by distractions such as the racist card.

    • Cyberquill

      Stocks of hand sanitizer, bleach, and cleaning detergent companies must be soaring as people around the world are stockpiling these products.

      As far as I heard, there simply haven’t been enough Ebola outbreaks in the last 40 years to justify the development of a vaccine. The need for allocating finite resources may not render it feasible to always be proactive with respect to all conceivable contingencies.

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