Recognize this infectious disease? It’s highly unlikely—but had the etymology gone slightly differently, you undoubtedly would have. Widely known today by the moniker “chickenpox,” the origin of the name (and the disease itself) has led to quite a bit of head scratching. Caused by varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the itchy infection was first formally reported under the name “chickenpox” in the 17th century.
Several theories exist regarding where the name came from. A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755 by Dr Samuel Johnson, states that chickenpox is called such “from its being of no very great danger,”1 referring to the mildness of the disease in comparison with that of smallpox. Being weaker and less dangerous than smallpox, it is meek, tame, cowardly—chicken. This does seem to make sense, but so too does the theory put forth by Thomas Fuller in Exanthemologia in 1730. Fuller attributes the name to the appearance of the eruption itself—as if chickens had pecked repeatedly at the child affected.1 Another theory related to the eruption’s appearance is that of Charles Fagge, published in 1886 in The Principles and Practice of Medicine. Rather than chicken pecks, he postulated, the lesions’ resemblance to chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, led to the name.1
Cole JJ, Maranda EL, Salih T, Lindsey SF, Jimenez J. Garbanzo-Icchen-Cowardly-Pox. JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(5):532. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.4443