Coronavirus: A rediscovery of the vocabulary

Matthew Vella | Malta Today | Sunday 6 April 2020

Prof. Adrian Grima from the University of Malta’s Faculty of Maltese posts regular updates on the use of Maltese words and loan-words pertaining to the pandemic

Imxija – spread or contagion

This is perhaps one word which, as Prof. Adrian Grima points out, is enjoying renewed prominence and whose roots, from the Maltese word meaning ‘to walk’, instantly suggest what it means. As laid down in Erin Serracino Inglott’s Il-Miklem Malti, imxija: IMXIJA, mard mexxej li joħduh bosta nies, bħall-influwenza, il-ħosba, eċċ.; mard li jintrikeb, epidemija (a contagious disease like the influenza… that is passed on to many, an epidemic).

Persuna – person

The word persuna is always in the feminine, even when speaking of a male person.

“You often realise someone speaks Maltese well by the way they use the word persuna if they use it in the masculine to refer to a male person. The mistake derives from words such as kollega (colleague) or vittma (victim), which can be used for both genders… those who find this difficult can use bniedem (human, but generic term for person) instead of persuna, but bniedma for a woman. I hope the incorrect usage of persuna is only a seasonal thing,” Grima jokes.

Sahhiet – greetings

Grima says he always bids people goodbye with the Saħħiet, derived from the oft-used saħħa, which augurs good health, and is Maltese for ‘health’. “I think I might have got this from Olivier Friggieri,” says Grima.

Grima’s colleagues in the Department of Maltese – Prof. Albert Borg, Prof. Arnold Cassola, Dr Immanuel Mifsud and Dr Michael Spagnol – also propose the following: “Ħu ħsieb saħħtek” (take care of your health); “Kuraġġ” (courage!); “Agħmel il-qalb” and “Qawwi qalbek” (take heart or be strong).

The return of the tsunami

Adrian Grima is certainly mindful of one thing: how tsunami became such an integral part of everyday speech. Health minister Chris Fearne has employed the tsunami metaphor to describe the efforts of doctors to prevent an insurmountable wave of medical patients afflicted by COVID-19 that would make it impossible to tend to all at once.

“The metaphor really made its way in our collective consciousness when an earthquake in the Indian Ocean in 2004 killed 230,000 with a tsunami. From then on, the word has become part of everybody’s language,” he said.

The word was even employed by a former Nationalist minister on the year’s arrival of irregular migrants to Malta from Libya.

Other metaphors used on the fight against the coronavirus are “war” – shown in headlines such as this one from The Guardian, ‘NHS hospitals likened to war zones as doctors prepare to make grim decisions’ or from Italy’s RAI, ‘Italy reacts to the coronavirus: We’re fighting an invisible enemy’.


The Maltese word for pneumonia is pulmonite, which also includes bronkopulmonite, a serious illness complicated by the inflammation of the bronchi. “My father often warned us to keep warm so as not to catch some pulmonite,” Grima says.

Quarantine and Kwarantina

In Maltese, the preposition fi (in) is not required to refer to quarantine. So one says: “toqgħod kwarantina”, “qiegħed kwarantina”, “żammewha kwarantina”, “poġġewhom kwarantina”, “għadha kwarantina”, and “ilha kwarantina”.

Health authorities also use the word ‘isolation’ or iżolament, ironically from the word ‘isola’ (island). In Il-Miklem Malti, Erin Serracino Inglott prefers the version ‘korantina’,

“Serracino Inglott says this comes from the Sicilian curantina, which is understandable given the contacts Malta has always had with Sicily and its ports. Kwarantina comes from the Italian quarantena and quarantine, deriving from the Italian quaranta (forty), for a space in which persons from contagious lands can spend 40 days under observation.

“In the Dizionario portatile Maltese-Italiano-Inglese published in Livorno fl-1843, Francesco Vella writes quarantina and says the popular version of the word as spoken by the people is curantina. In his 1845 dictionary, Giovanni Battista Falzon uses kwarantina, as does Dun Karm Psaila a 100 years later in 1847.”



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